More than 200,000 children in New York State live with serious mental health conditions; untreated or undertreated mental illness can have a devastating impact on children and their families, leading to school failure, encounters with the criminal justice system, and suicide. To better meet the needs of children and adolescents struggling with mental health issues, an innovative program on Long Island is integrating mental health services into primary care settings for youth.

With support from an NYHealth grant, South Oaks Hospital has embedded mental health therapists on-site at pediatrician offices—allowing for a convenient, trusted setting for children and their families to get mental health treatment in a timely manner.

Transportation difficulties, a lack of capacity to provide pediatric mental health services, and long waiting lists for clinicians who do treat children with mental health issues have limited the ability of children to seek and receive treatment for their mental health conditions on Long Island. To ease this burden, South Oaks Hospital has worked to house mental health clinicians at two pediatrician offices in Levittown and East Hampton, which are now treating a combined total of more than 100 children with mental health issues.

“Families become more engaged because there’s less stigma in going to the pediatrician,” says Susan Jayson, program director of comprehensive outpatient behavioral services, South Oaks Hospital. “It’s a known, comfortable environment for families and kids.”

Under the model, pediatricians identify children in need of mental health services through intake questionnaires and surveys or through speaking with the child or parents to find out if there are any mental health issues. If there is a concern or need, the pediatrician can refer them to the on-site mental health clinician, often times by taking the child and the family down the hall directly to meet the therapist. This on-site integration of services makes it easier and more likely for families to follow through with mental health appointments, allowing for early intervention and effective treatment for the child that in turn can minimize the effects of mental health issues.

“Our 13-year-old daughter has been struggling for years; in one visit she mentioned to her doctor that she was feeling anxious, and we were immediately introduced to someone who could help us,” says the parent of a patient at the Levittown office. “Now, we visit the office weekly for her to speak with the therapist there and monthly to get her medication. It is so nice to be able to go to the one place we trust the most to get all of our needs met. Today, our daughter is beginning a new school year and is finally off and running.”

This integrated approach to care is helping set the precedent for addressing behavioral health issues in primary care settings for children and ensuring that each child’s physical and mental health needs are appropriately met.

“The pediatricians are on board with this and anecdotally we’re hearing from them about a decrease in visits related to stomachaches, headaches, and other psychosomatic symptoms from patients who are now receiving mental health care,” says Ms. Jayson.

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