Virginia program to give more children access to mental health care

In response to 'crisis,' primary care physicians to get training, consultations

ROANOKE, Va. – A new statewide program aims to give more children access to mental health care.

Psychiatrists in Virginia say access is a growing problem, as many families wait months for an appointment and have to drive long distances.

The new program is called VMAP, the Virginia Mental health Access Program. Experts throughout the commonwealth have teamed up, modeling their efforts after those in other states.

They’re focusing on giving support to primary care physicians in two areas. The program will provide mental health training to screen, diagnose and managing issues, and it will allow physicians to consult child psychiatrists over the phone.

The idea is to allow PCPs to help children dealing with depression, anxiety or ADHD in the event they cannot get an appointment with a child psychiatrist. 

Dr. Felicity Adams, who heads child and adolescent psychiatry at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, will be one of the experts giving consultations over the phone with physicians all over southwest Virginia. She’ll lead the efforts in the region.

“We just have an access problem,” she said.

She said a positive aspect of the approach is that many people are more comfortable with their PCP, compared to a visit to a psychiatrist, which can carry a stigma.

“I'm hopeful that it will be really meaningful for families to be able to initiate care with someone that they already know,” Adams said.

She’s practiced in Roanoke for 12 years and said many local children are facing wait times.

“Families who call looking for a new patient appointment may be told 'it will be a few months' or 'we have a wait list.' That can be a real challenge when you feel like your child is in crisis,” she said.

She said the challenge intensifies particularly if a school counselor has let parents know that their child is making statements about self-harm.

“It's always too long to wait when you feel like your child is in crisis,” Adams said.

Local psychiatrists could start giving consultations as early as this spring. Adams will have time blocked off each week to provide assistance. The program will roll out features as it's able to do so.

10 News has spoken to a few local families who didn’t want to be on-camera or be identified, but who said they’ve struggled with waiting for appointments, driving hours to go to them and with not being able to see psychiatrists regularly.

Experts say Virginia is at a “crisis” stage when it comes to children having access to mental health care resources. The commonwealth ranks in the bottom ten states for access, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America.

There just aren’t enough child psychiatrists.

The counties in gray on the map above, which account for 65 percent of all Virginia counties, don’t have any. No Virginia counties in southwest Virginia are considered to have enough (only two are -- those are shown in green).

Dr. Sandy Chung, who’s based in Fairfax, heads the program. She’s been leading the efforts to organize and acquire funding.

She said data shows there are 7,000 child psychiatrists in the country but there is a need to have closer to 30,000, and believes the effects of the lack of access are severe.

“We've had children who've ended up turning to substances, sometimes committing crimes and, unfortunately, even cases where children have killed themselves while they've been waiting for care,” Chung said.

She said some families in southwest Virginia have to drive three hours for an appointment, and she believes more and more children are in need as a growing number face issues with depression, anxiety or ADHD.

Chung believes there’s a lack of medical professionals entering child psychiatry. She thinks the field is in need of an overhaul to make it more financially manageable for people trying to enter the profession.

It seems VMAP is likely to get funding from the General Assembly. There’s $1.23 million set aside in the two budget bills that are moving forward this week. The program also received nearly $500,000 for this year from a grant, but Chung said the goal is to get closer to $4 million, or beyond, to continue to expand the program and provide care to more children in the commonwealth.