One of the greatest challenges you may face as a pediatrician is in helping your patients and families navigate the mental health system. Nearly 20% of children will experience a psychiatric illness before they turn 18, and a quarter of those will go on to experience a persistent or severe psychiatric illness. Whether a patient is experiencing symptoms that are mild or severe, their parents are likely to come to you first for an assessment and for help in finding a referral to the appropriate specialist.

Unlike the smooth process to refer to a neurologist or orthopedist, accessing treatment for mental health problems is often confusing and frustrating. Because of reimbursement that is below the cost of providing care, many community hospitals have closed their divisions of child and adolescent psychiatry, and academic medical centers often have a long wait for a provider. If you go through a patient’s insurance, usually the list of providers is woefully out-of-date, with most of them not accepting new referrals or insurance or both. If mental health services are “carved out” to cut costs, the primary insurer has no direct control of mental health services, and the carve out company is looking for providers willing to accept lower reimbursement and limit longer-term treatments. Faced with reimbursement and administrative demands by the carve out company, child psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers that once staffed these services have chosen fee-for-service private offices that do not accept any insurance, leaving many communities without access to adequate resources. In private practice, these providers are busy, face no administrative demands to justify their work, and earn two or three times what insurers reimburse.

So families often turn to their schools and their pediatricians when faced with a mood, anxiety, or behavioral problem. While there is no straightforward solution to this problem of access, we have put together a “road map” to what services might be available and to help you in your approach to these patients.

It is first important to consider that mental health and developmental questions are now a major part of pediatric primary care. The majority of your visits will be well child care and psychosocial. So a part, maybe a third or half of mental health concerns might now be considered a routine part of primary care. Many practices are now doing psychosocial screening and more states are mandating reimbursement of this screening. Typically screening includes a CHAT for autism (Checklist for Autism in Toddlers), a developmental screen if indicated, a Pediatric Symptom Checklist for school-age children and adolescents, a Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression in adolescents, and a CRAFFT for adolescent substance abuse. Some practices include a Hamilton or other depression screen for mothers of newborns and toddlers as maternal depression has a serious impact on the child and is responsive to treatment. If screening is reimbursed, some of that money could go to fund an on-site social worker, who can also bill for patient contact services, and thus provide the practice with an on-site mental health presence at break-even cost. This social worker may be expert in referring to local resources, may be trained in psychotherapy, or may even lead groups for parents of recent divorce, new mothers, facing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), etc.

The best place to start for a family with psychosocial concerns is to do a brief review of your patient’s day to day functioning – school, friends, family, activities, and mood. What is your best assessment of the problem, how much of the child and family’s life is affected, and how severe is the problem? There are many mental health problems for which the first-line treatment is a trial of medication according to an algorithm that you can use following American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. For example, if considering stimulant treatment for a 7-year-old with possible attention difficulties, you can use broad screening instruments like the Pediatric Symptom Checklist or Childhood Behavior Checklist as well as the Vanderbilt Assessment Scales or Conners questionnaire that are specific for ADHD. Many pediatricians also are comfortable treating adolescent depression with medication and with comanagement from a social worker with a master’s degree or a doctorate level psychologist. Of course, treating depression requires a more careful interview, consideration of suicide risk, and more frequent follow-up visits.

As first-line treatment for depression and anxiety usually starts with psychotherapy, it is important to consider how you will access this component of mental health care. For those that don’t have a licensed clinical social worker on-site providing cognitive-behavioral therapy, many busy pediatric practices will establish a relationship with a therapist or group that has agreed to accept their referrals and accepts insurance reimbursement. If you are not fortunate enough to already have such a relationship, it can be fruitful to speak with colleagues in a busier practice about whom they use. It also can be fruitful to reach out to the graduate programs in psychology (PhD or PsyD programs) or social work in your community, to find out if they have a referral service or would like to connect recent graduates trying to establish themselves with referring pediatricians. Having a resource located in your office (employed by you or renting space) is ideal.

When a patient is presenting with a more complex set of symptoms or fails to respond to your initial treatments, then you will want to locate an appropriate referral to a child psychiatrist. If your group is affiliated with an academic medical center, find out what the procedure is for referring to their child psychiatrists or to the child psychiatry trainees. Often there is easy availability early in the academic year (summer), when children are less likely to present with problems and a new crop of trainees has arrived. Academic medical centers also will often be a hub for a lot of research activity, and research programs are usually eager to enroll patients without regard to their insurance. Good studies will provide patients with a formalized assessment that will clarify the diagnostic picture, ensuring that a child is on the path to the right treatment. Cultivating a connection with the research coordinator can ensure that your group knows about opportunities for free care that is easier to access than most.

Many states require schools to provide testing to clarify whether psychiatric symptoms, developmental issues, or learning disabilities are affecting a student’s ability to perform in school. Your office can educate parents that they should go to the school with their concerns and request a formal assessment. If testing indicates a condition, the school system is often required to provide appropriate educational services, such as tutoring for learning disabilities, occupational therapy, and social skills support for children on the autism spectrum, and even counseling for children with anxiety, mood, and behavioral issues. Often, the school psychologist or social worker will be a valuable resource in providing direct care to children or helping you and the parents identify excellent treaters in the community. For children with severe and persistent psychiatric illness, many states require that schools provide or pay for the services that are necessary to educate each child. This can mean anything from paying for an after school social skills group to paying for a therapeutic boarding school. In these cases, it is often helpful to have established a relationship with an educational consultant. These are usually social workers with expertise in mental health issues and the state’s educational system and regulations, and they will partner with parents for a modest fee to educate and empower parents so that they might get appropriate services from their schools. Again, it can be fruitful to speak with trusted colleagues and find one who has identified a local consultant that they trust.

Some states and counties have tried to address the problem of accessing psychiatric care for children, but often these are programs that have not been adequately marketed to pediatricians or families, so they may be under utilized. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, there is the state Child Psychiatry Access Project, which provides all pediatricians with free access to a consulting child psychiatrist by phone. It requires that pediatricians are willing to treat children themselves with the support and guidance of a consulting child psychiatrist, but it will also provide a face-to-face diagnostic evaluation of that child by a child psychiatrist so that they can in turn provide the best guidance to the pediatrician. And it provides a care coordinator who will help to identify appropriate treaters, such as a cognitive-behavioral therapist or a psychopharmacologist who accept the family’s insurance, when the pediatrician is unable to provide the recommended treatment. An online investigation through your state’s or county’s Office of Mental Health or your local Medical Society can help your office identify what resources may exist in your community.

Finally, your most critical task after a parent has come to you with concerns about their child’s mood, thinking, or behavior, may be in educating and supporting those parents. Prepare the parents by explaining to them how the mental health system is more fragmented and frustrating than most other medical specialties. Remind them that psychiatric symptoms and illnesses are eminently treatable, and it will be worth patiently navigating this complex system to eventually access the right care for their child. It can be helpful to suggest to them that if they can possibly afford to pay out-of-pocket for the appropriate care, it will make excellent treatment much easier to access in a timely way. It can be meaningful for parents to hear from you that it is worthwhile for them to call or write their insurance company and complain if that company has restricted access to child psychiatric care. They are, after all, the customers of their insurance company, and it is the silence, shame, and stigma surrounding psychiatric illness that has enabled insurance companies to restrict access to effective care. Finally, it can be very powerful to connect parents with support or advocacy organizations that will help them in navigating this system and in speaking up to their insurance companies, state health, or education agencies or in the press in ways that will diminish the stigma that still surrounds these problems. The National Alliance on Mental Illness ( ), The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law ( ), and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry ( ) all have excellent online resources that also help identify local organizations and resources for parents. If insurance companies refused to pay for potentially life-saving chemotherapy for a pediatric cancer, you can imagine that there would be many parents protesting to those insurers, to the news, and even to their local or state governments. Mental health care should be no different, as the problems can be as disabling and life-threatening and effective treatments and even cures exist.

Dr. Swick is an attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time (PACT) Program at the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital, also in Boston. Dr. Jellinek is professor of psychiatry and of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston. E-mail them at