More than a third of children who receive treatment for mental health issues get it from their primary care providers, such as a family doctor or nurse practitioner, according to new research.
A study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics says 35 percent of children saw only a primary care provider for mental health issues.
Using government data from 43,235 people ages 2 to 21 from 2008 to 2011, researchers found primary care doctors play a large role in diagnosing and treating children’s mental health conditions. The study examined who was administering treatment, not its outcomes.
“The thing that struck us were how many children were receiving mental healthcare from their primary care providers,” Dr. Jeanne Van Cleave, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and researcher on the study, told Healthline.
Doctors Comfortable Treating ADHD
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 11 percent of children under the age of 17 have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as of 2011.
However, less than half of these 6.4 million children receive the recommended care, which includes medication and therapy.
Seeing this gap in coverage, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages primary care physicians to take an active role in treating children with mental health conditions. Previous studies have shown that family doctors are comfortable managing ADHD more than any other mental health condition.
The new study shows that in addition to the almost 35 percent of children with mental health conditions that only see a primary care physician, about 26 percent had care from a psychiatrist only. About 15 percent saw only a psychologist or social worker for mental health issues.
Primary care physicians were also more likely to prescribe medication to children with ADHD than mental health professionals (almost 74 percent versus 61 percent).
A study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found primary care doctors prescribed and increased doses of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anxiolytics/hypnotics much faster than psychiatrists.
“These trends underscore the importance of collaboration between primary care physicians and psychiatrists to help ensure provision of high quality outpatient mental healthcare,” the researchers of that study concluded.
Other recent research has sounded alarms in the mental health community, including the increase in prescriptions for antipsychotic medications in children who didn’t have psychosis.
A study in the journal Psychiatry found that antipsychotics were most commonly prescribed for children with ADHD or depression.
More Collaboration Needed
The study published Monday highlights the role primary care physicians play in mental health, but it also suggests that collaboration between physicians and mental health professionals doesn’t happen enough.
“There needs to be some kind of communication between specialists to track the patient’s progress,” Van Cleave said.
Part of this collaboration could include ensuring primary care doctors have mental health specialists available to answer questions and offer support.
“The sizable number of children needing mental health treatment highlights the importance of supporting pediatricians in these roles,” Van Cleave said.