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Study: Many children do not receive follow-up care for mental health conditions

A large new study finds that mental health care for many children in the U.S. falls far short, particularly when it comes to the follow-up treatment they receive (Source: “New research shows many children with mental health conditions don’t get follow-up care,” Stat News, Sept. 22).

The study, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined insurance claims from children between the ages of 10 and 17 covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield. Of the more than 2 million children included in the study, nearly one in 10 had a claim related to mental illness between 2012 and 2018.

The authors found that only 71% of the children received treatment in the 3 months that followed an initial insurance claim — but the study found that rate varied widely from one ZIP code to the next. In the best-performing ZIP codes, nearly 90% of children received follow-up care within three months of an initial insurance claim. In the worst-performing areas, only half of the children got that care.

In the past, some experts have suggested that shortages of qualified mental health providers are to blame for shortcomings in adolescent mental health care, with pediatricians often left to fill the gap. But the authors concluded that the disparities detailed in the study couldn’t be simply explained by staffing shortages.

The study found that the number of therapists in a given area is slightly associated with the chance that a child will receive follow-up treatment — but is far more closely correlated with the type of treatment a child receives. In communities where there are more psychiatrists, drug-only treatment and treatment with red flag drugs is more common. In communities with more of a supply of therapists, therapy-only treatment is more prevalent.