Mental health services in Merced expanding to match need

Three out of four children in California with mental health needs don’t get treatment, according to a new report.

The report, released earlier this week by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, states that more than 300,000 children in the state need mental health care, but only 1 in 4 is receiving treatment.

According to the study, about 8.5 percent of all California children in the 4-to-11 age group are identified as having mental health issues. These include: conduct problems, emotional symptoms, hyperactivity and problems with peers. Parents reported that 70.8 percent of these children went without emotional or psychological counseling.

The study is based on data collected from 2007 and 2009. Officials at the Merced County Department of Mental Health said services and outreach have come a long way since.

“It is older data and things have changed tremendously,” said Curt Willems, assistant director of mental health services. “During that time (2007-09), a lot of funding (for mental health services) had gone away.”

While the report does not reflect current efforts, Willems said, it does provide good information on the direction mental health officials want to take their work.

Cesar Velasquez, program coordinator with the Merced Children’s System of Care, estimates that in Merced County there are about 2,060 children between 4 and 11 who are in need of mental health services. Velasquez estimates that of these, 1,875 children have received some sort of support from the Department of Mental Health.

These numbers, Velasquez said, reflect only the children assisted by the county and its contract providers, and does not include the number of children helped by other entities that also provide mental health services, such as clinics.

Velasquez explained that the county’s Department of Mental Health is required to provide “medically necessary” assistance to children with severe emotional disturbance, or SED. In Merced, there are 504 minors receiving help under the SED criterion.

However, this number is expected to grow soon. The department is in the process of assessing 1,200 youth in the county’s foster care system, as required by the state.

Betty Hoskins, program manager with the Merced Children’s System of Care, said the department has been working closely with school districts to expand mental health services on campuses. Currently, 42 schools in the county have at least one part-time mental health clinician on site, Hoskins said.

Officials also expressed interest in wanting to work more closely with primary care providers to increase access to mental health services by those who otherwise might not seek help.

“For a lot of these first-generation patients, especially in the Latino population, their doctor is the access point for any psychological issues,” Willems said. “And we don’t get into that group as we would like to; we’ve tried different approaches, including hiring bilingual and bi-cultural staff. We need to really work on that warm handoff between physicians and mental health clinicians.”

Another concern for officials is figuring out how to expand services without stretching staff too thin, but also hiring qualified clinicians when the opportunity for growth comes.

According to Hoskins, these type of studies help prove that early intervention is important to reduce the severity of mental health problems in adulthood. “We really do appreciate that these studies are being done ... it’s just so important to care for our youth now to create more successful adults.”

For more information, people can search mental health services at the county’s website: