Each one of us — from our littlest babies to our wisest elders — has mental health. We know that mental health begins early in life and develops throughout the entire lifespan. Research studies estimate that approximately one in five children experience a mental health issue during any given year. We also know that half of all mental health issues begin by age 14 and three-quarters occur by 24 years. This makes it critically important that we build a strong foundation of resiliency among young children and youth so that they have the tools they need as they move into adulthood. Child psychiatry access programs (CPAPs), which we explore in our new issue brief, are one such tool we can use to foster resiliency and improve well-being as children grow.

While many factors affect mental health and well-being, it is important to recognize that trauma can have serious negative consequences. Centering children in our efforts to address mental health is necessary because trauma or adverse childhood experiences can have life-long impacts on physical, mental and behavioral health. We know that trauma is quite common with more than two-thirds of youth age 16 and younger reporting at least one traumatic experience. While every demographic has a large prevalence of trauma, data show children of color experience more traumatic events than their white peers, and LGBTQ youth also experience higher rates of adverse experiences.

One challenging backdrop behind the prevalence of trauma and its influence on mental health is an ongoing shortage of mental health providers of all types. This shortage is particularly longstanding and severe for child psychiatrists. As a health justice movement, our long-term goals include increasing the number and diversity of mental health providers, while better integrating them into the primary care setting. However, one way to address these provider shortages in the interim is through child psychiatry access programs (CPAPs). These programs give primary care providers direct access to specialists in psychiatry who provide consultations on diagnosis and treatment. Although CPAPs help improve the capacity of primary care providers to address mental health issues, they do not fully eliminate the need for additional mental and behavioral health providers. As a result, these valuable programs provide an important stepping-stone toward fully integrating behavioral health into primary care.

Advocates have an important role to play in ensuring that child psychiatry access programs effectively address individual children’s mental health needs, including ensuring that these programs address trauma and health equity. Our new issue brief provides an introduction to child psychiatry access programs and makes some recommendations on how state advocates can start or strengthen programs in their state.

We encourage you to read the brief and reach out to Kyle Marie Stock (kmstock@communitycatalyst.org) to strategize on ways to engage in advocacy related to these important programs.