One-Third of Children Only See Primary Care Providers for Mental Health, Study Says

Just 26 percent of kids studied were treated by psychiatrists, the Mass General study found.

One in three children who suffer from common conditions like ADHD and depression only receive help from a primary care provider, according to a study by Massachusetts General Hospital. The results, which were published this week in the health journal Pediatrics, stand in contrast with recent calls for more specialized mental healthcare and screening in the U.S.

The study, which observed more than 43,000 patients under the age of 21, found that 35 percent of those seeking mental health treatment in outpatient settings between 2008 and 2011 wound up in their physician or pediatrician’s office. About 26 percent of these children and young adults were treated only by psychiatrists, and 15 percent only by social workers or psychologists. Roughly 23 percent saw multiple providers.

Of those observed, four out of 10 children with ADHD discussed mental wellness only with a primary care physician; the percentage was even lower for those with anxiety or mood-based issues. The study also found that observed primary care physicians prescribed more medication to children than psychiatrists did, and they were about 12 percent more likely to prescribe mood-altering drugs.

For better or for worse, the study underscores the crucial role primary care physicians play in children’s development and mental well-being. As the researchers wrote in the study, “Efforts supporting mental health in primary care will reach a substantial portion of children receiving mental health services.”