Experts say half of all cases of mental illness begin to develop before age 14. But in New Jersey, children in need of treatment often struggle to get the care they need.
New Jersey has about 1,700 pediatricians but only 240 child psychiatrists. Dr. Andres Pumariega, a psychiatrist who treats children and adolescents, said patients can wait up to three months to see someone in his specialty.
And pediatricians don’t have enough training in mental health to step in, Pumariega said.
“They receive very little training as a matter of fact, except if they have a special interest in it. And then when they go out in practice, about 30-40 percent of what they do is pediatric behavioral health,” he said. “They’re woefully unprepared.”
As New Jersey tries to address the shortage of child psychiatrists, Gov. Chris Christie has recommitted funding to an interim solution. The pilot program gives pediatricians in five New Jersey counties resources to screen and treat children with mental health issues.
After being trained by child psychiatrists to interpret results, participating doctors screen kids for mental-health issues. Nearly 100 pediatricians have signed up for the collaborative health pilot since it started in May.
Fran Gallagher, who leads New Jersey’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, applauded the state for embracing a collaborative model to address this problem.
“The real winners are the children and the families,” said Gallagher. “Because it helps to identify mental, emotional and behavioral health issues early — and then that gives the pediatrician and their health team an opportunity to link them to supports in the community.”
New Jersey is now one of 35 states in the country that have collaborative programs in place.