3 On Your Side Investigates: Under Pressure

Children’s mental health issues are an increasing problem in Mississippi
Published: Jul. 28, 2022 at 5:56 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) -In the last couple of year’s there has been remote learning, parents losing jobs, hearing about war and wondering whether the family can afford gas or groceries. Kids are like sponges and doctors are finding they’re taking on more of those stresses than you might ever realize.

Dr. Catherine Phillippi is a pediatrician at TrustCare Kids. She sees it all... runny noses, bumps and bruises and now she’s found herself at the frontlines of a different kind of treatment.

“Mental health issues have taken up more, I would say at least 50% of what we see now... I think right now, we’re in a bigger health crisis for psychological issues with kids than we are with COVID,” explained Phillippi. “I would say that that probably is the number one thing that I go home and worry about in patients.”

But it’s an issue that she says seems to have worsened during the pandemic at a time when kids may “feel” artificially connected but report that realistically... they’re lonely.

“I’m just seeing a lot of visits that they will make the appointment as a checkup, or as a complaint that seems really superficial,” added Phillippi. “And then when you get in the room, we realize that is a much bigger deal. So then the time allotted for that visit is not enough.”

The most common mental health issues she’s identifying? Depression and anxiety. So, what ages are we talking about?

“I have four and five year olds that are so anxious, they can’t sleep,” noted Phillippi. “And that worry about everything from dying.. .which, you know, with COVID, I’m sure they they were two and three at a time when that was on the ticker was ticking off how many people had died.”

While Phillippi is staying later seeing these patients and charting their symptoms, it’s often beyond what she’s trained to treat.

“And the resources that are available, especially quickly are limited. We’re in the Capital City, so we should have lots of resources, but our system is collapsing under the burden,” she said. “So people are overbooked, and there just aren’t a lot of resources that are quick for the child that is in dire need or immediate need. So often, they end up in the emergency room, which is not the best place for someone always. We do have a lot of inpatient options. But there’s this middle ground where you can’t wait for six weeks for an appointment. But you also are not immediately suicidal.”

3OYS Investigates: Under Pressure
3OYS Investigates: Under Pressure(WLBT)

So, we wanted to see what resources ARE available and started with the state Department of Mental Health. And learned their role is limited.

“As far as what directly provide Department of Mental Health, as far as the State Operated Programs, specifically, to children and youth,” described Dr. Mallory Malkin, Chief Clinical Officer for the Bureau of Behavioral Health Services with the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, “we have the specialized treatment facility on the coast, which is for children and adolescents who are experiencing significant psychological or psychiatric difficulty. And then of course, Oak Circle at Mississippi State Hospital, which is a children and adolescent unit.”

There isn’t a state-run acute mental health inpatient facility anywhere in the northern part of the state. For the two they do operate, it takes a court order to get in. If the family feels the child is a danger to themselves or others, they are eligible for a review process that could eventually place them at one of those facilities. But the department didn’t have an exact number of beds available when I asked.

“There are limited bed capacities at all the State Operated Programs due to staffing limitations at this current time, which I think, you know, a variety of employers are feeling that throughout the state,” added Malkin.

The focus is instead of community-based services. Mississippi has 13 community mental health centers. The Mental Health Department doesn’t run those but do certify, monitor and assist, including providing grant opportunities.

We checked in with Region 8 that’s based in Brandon to learn what services they offer.

“Our overall goal is to provide services in the least restrictive environment possible, so that individuals can remain with their families and loved ones in the community,” explained Richard McMullan, Region 8 Children’s Services Director.

That can range from counseling to crisis intervention, and location-wise, may be at an office or even in the family’s home, when needed.

But how easy is it to be seen? They tell us it should happen quickly.

“Someone can come in the same day if they need to, you know, within 24 hours, we can have them seen,” said McMullan. “And just like with crisis services, we pride ourselves on responding immediately.”

Outside of the government-supported options, places like Canopy Children’s Solutions also focuses on care for children.

Their newest team member Sean Brewer is just joining after spending years working in the school system, most recently as principal at Madison Central High School, where he saw the mental health issues grow in the wake of COVID.

“We saw higher absenteeism, we saw more referrals to our counselors, we had more conferences and challenges with our students and our families than we ever had before,” explained Brewer, who is now Canopy Children’s Solutions Director of Education. “And at the same time, wow, it’s been an uptick in that. It’s also brought that to light that these are issues, mental health or health issues, and they need to be addressed.”

Another potential roadblock for families beyond a potential stigma is the cost.

“The good thing is insurances are required to cover mental health services,” said Shea Hutchins, Canopy’s Chief Solutions Officer. “So, Medicaid, private insurance, we’re credentialed to take all of those. And then for our outpatient clinics, we have a sliding-scale fee in the event that there is no insurance, then we will take the family’s income into consideration and we have a sliding-scale fee to help meet those needs.”

And they, too, are seeing the increased needs for services. In Canopy’s behavioral health outpatients clinics, they saw around 3,100 children in 2021. Just in the first quarter of 2022, they’ve already seen 1,200. Still...

“There are so many resources that families have accessible in their own communities they’re not aware of,” noted Hutchins. “And that’s that’s a huge factor. Families just don’t know what’s out there.”

Canopy’s latest program called LINK is operating in all 82 counties and is designed to change that and connect families to the resources available, even if they’re outside of Canopy.

“We like to say at Canopy...it’s OK to not be OK,” Hutchins said. “It’s just not OK to stay there.”

For Dr. Phillippi, she finds herself bringing patients back in for follow-up visits if she can’t locate a resource to connect them with.

“This is an issue where we’re all, ‘it’s all hands on deck,’” said Phillippi. “We have to take it seriously and we all need to be doing whatever we can, whether that’s continuing education or [something else] so that we can be equipped to be the front line.”

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