Primary Care Doctors Important in Detecting and Managing Childhood Mental Illness

March 30, 2012 · Posted in Political Commentary 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) conducted a survey to determine ways that primary care providers can better communicate with parents about a child’s mental illness. In a news release NAMI executive director Michael Fitzpatrick said, “Most Americans rely on family doctors and pediatricians for early detection of mental illness and in many cases treatment.”

NAMI concluded that primary care providers could play a larger role in detecting mental illness in children. They found that in 63% of families, the first signs of behavioral or emotional problems were evident in children by age 7. More than half of families reported that their primary care physicians were not knowledgeable about mental health treatments. Almost two-thirds of families reported that their primary care providers were not knowledgeable about local resources to support families with mentally ill children.

family at doctor's office

NAMI’s suggestions for primary care providers included educating themselves about early-onset mental illness and local resources for families, providing screening tools for parents and youth in order to encourage discussion of mental health, emphasizing that mental health is as important as physical health to a child’s wellbeing, asking questions about mental health as a routine part of office visits, and listening to families’ concerns without judgment.

Primary care providers are also encouraged to let families know that there is hope and that they are not alone in facing this difficulty, that mental illness in a child is not the parents’ fault, and that their children have many strengths.

Primary care doctors should also be prepared to: refer a mentally ill child to psychiatrists, psychologists, and other specialists if needed; follow up, including collaborating with other healthcare providers to develop and implement a treatment plan; and encourage patients and their families.

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