Seeking Mental Health Services For Children, Parents Can Face a Maze

December 27, 2011

Mental health services in Arizona have been cut dramatically over the past several years. But for children who need mental health care, it’s not always a lack of funding that’s the problem. Parents face different approaches to treatment, bureaucratic hurdles, and a lack of readily available information.

Jami McBride Jami McBride struggled to find the right mental health services for her son. (Photo: Nick Blumberg)

Jami McBride knows the struggle all too well. She lives in a Phoenix suburb on a tidy, quiet street. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Jami and her son were curled up on the couch watching an X-men movie. It’s a welcome calm after the past year and a half. In the summer of 2010, Jami and her husband learned their son, then 10 years old, had molested a little girl several years younger than him.

“I began calling and researching every possible avenue that I could get my hands on,” Jami said.

Jami tried to get her son into programs for children who act out sexually. She was turned away, for a variety of reasons. Although Jami has private insurance, many programs only accept state health insurance, often after a child goes through the court system. Others said her son’s behavior wasn’t severe enough, or that they couldn’t treat sexual misbehavior. Some were only able to take him with a referral from Child Protective Services or a court order, but since the police couldn’t interview the victim, they had to close the case.

“It was just heart wrenching that there was nothing I could do,” she said. “I could not help him myself, [and] I couldn’t find the help for him.”

Then, it happened again. In the fall of 2010, Jami learned about another incident of molestation. This time, her son’s case went through the juvenile court system. He’s got a criminal record now, and he’s on house arrest. But he’s also being seen by a therapist who specializes in treating juvenile sex offenders.

“The end result we’re looking for is the opportunity for him to make a change. In my opinion I don’t think it’s too late,” said Jami. “And I don’t think it would be too late for any child, but obviously, if something like this goes unaddressed, then it might be.”

And that’s true—despite the unusual nature of a case like this and the complex variety of causes, treatment is key; not only to stop the behavior, but to keep the patient safe. Dr. Urszula Kotlow is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

“You don’t want the child to end up victimizing other children,” Kotlow said. “But also, the child himself often feels remorseful, and sometimes can feel such a self-loathing and disgust that they can become suicidal.”

Despite the importance of treatment, Kotlow says there are many obstacles for parents who need help; and it isn’t always not having insurance, or having the wrong kind of insurance.

Dr. Urszula Kotlow Dr. Urszula Kotlow. (Photo courtesy Phoenix Children's Hospital)

“There’s the social stigma associated with mental health issues and mental illness that can often prevent parents from seeking help,” she said. “And then, there’s a national shortage of child psychiatrists and child therapists.”

Dr. Peter Jensen Dr. Peter Jensen. (Photo courtesy Mayo Clinic)

Dr. Peter Jensen, a professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, agrees.

“It’s really a national crisis. It’d be like letting every kid with pediatric cancer—three out of four—just say, ‘Well good luck, we hope for the best for you.’”

Jensen is also president of the Reach Institute, which trains people how to work with kids who have mental health problems.

“We used to think that asthma could only be done by specialists. Now it’s done by primary care providers like pediatricians,” Jensen said. “We need to train the primary care providers to do just as good a job with mental health as they do with asthma.”

Jensen hopes if more pediatricians were versed in mental health issues, that would free up specialists to focus on the more severe or unusual cases.

And even though her son’s now in treatment, Jami McBride is still struggling with what he did.

“The offense itself, as awful as it is, I mean, he’s my child, and I love him, and I would do anything for him,” she said. “That aspect of the whole situation, in and of itself, I think was the hardest part for me.”

There’s a long road ahead. Now 12, Jami’s son is on probation until he’s an adult. It’s possible he’ll have to register as a sex offender up to the age of 25. But Jami still has hope for her son’s future.

“This has turned out to be, so far, a situation that has a light way, way down at the end of the tunnel. But it’s just going to be a matter of getting him to see that, I think.”

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