Utah’s mental health crisis starts in childhood

Children in Utah are more likely than kids elsewhere to have an adverse childhood experience or a parent who’s struggling with mental health, a new report says.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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Utah’s mental health crisis starts early.

Children in the Beehive State are more likely than kids elsewhere to have an adverse childhood experience or a parent who’s struggling with mental health. Kids also are less likely to get treatment or counseling when they’re struggling themselves, according to a recent report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Data showing a less-than-ideal situation “indicate areas of potential influence to support childhood mental health in the state,” the report reads.

Each of the statistics in the report are concerning, said Jennifer Mitchell, who heads clinical strategy and innovation for The Children’s Center Utah, a nonprofit agency that provides comprehensive mental health care to infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families.

She said significant problems and needs are going unmet, but there’s also “a lot of hope for intervening.”

Identifying the problem early on is critical, said Moe Hickey and Ciriac Alvarez Valle with Voices for Utah Children, as is improving access to providers and addressing the stigma around childhood mental illness.

“Mental health is health, and maybe we need to stop talking about it as a separate thing over here and integrate it into the practice,” Hickey said.

Utah has higher levels of mental illness than other states

Utah adults report higher-than-average levels of mental illness, including serious problems and thoughts of suicide.

Around 25% of adults in Utah report any mental illness — the 11th highest of any state.

Another 7.2% of Utah adults report serious mental health problems and 6.3% report they’ve seriously considered suicide in the past year. That puts Utah in the top five for both of those measures.

Utah parents report doing even worse. Around 13% of Utah moms report fair or poor mental health, the most of any state and more than double the national rate of 5.2%

And 44.6% of parents report they aren’t coping well with the daily demands of raising children. That’s second only to Hawaii and 40% higher than the national rate.

We’re socialized to view parenting as a wonderful and joyful experience, Mitchell said, and you “hope that’s the case but it’s also challenging.”

When parents struggle and consistently can’t attune to their children’s needs, that impacts development, she said.

“Their entire brain architecture is forming connections based on the interactions they have with the adults in their lives,” Mitchell said.

Stigma, lack of access affect who gets treatment

When Utahns — whether young or old — struggle with mental health, they also aren’t always able to get the care they need.

More than half of children aged 3 to 17 who had a mental or behavioral health condition didn’t get treatment, based on data from the National Survey of Children’s Health.

That’s because of a mix of stigma and access, Hickey said.

There’s especially stigma around childhood mental illness, he said, and that came to the forefront a few years ago during a rash of suicides at Herriman High School.

A similar string of suicides farther south in Sevier County didn’t get as much attention but highlights issues with access, Hickey said.

The closest mental health treatment center for children living there was more than an hour away from Sevier County, he said. A child in need would only gets two days of covered treatment before going back home, he added.

Access is even worse for communities of color and people for whom English isn’t their primary language, said Valle, a senior analyst for Voices for Utah Children.

Few schools provide services directly on-site, Valle said. That can make it difficult for parents to take time off, make an appointment and take their child to see a provider, she said.

Canyons School District is proud to have several options at schools for its students, said Dr. Brian McGill, the district’s director of student wellness services. The district is one of just a few in the state with social workers, including one in just about every school.

There’s been a rise in anxiety and depression in the last few years, he said, and the district has added mental health support staff to help kids deal with the rising need amid more stressors.

Since the district added more services, suicide rates and depression have decreased, he said.

McGill’s biggest priority is making sure kids have access, which the district also does by partnering with treatment facilities that can provide more intensive services and conducting mental health screening nights.

It can backfire when districts don’t prioritize children’s mental health or fund services, he said.

“Our whole focus in public education is helping kids learn and critically think,” McGill said, and they can’t engage in school and do well if they aren’t healthy.

Well-child visits can help, but Utahns aren’t going

In addition to increasing access, the state also needs to work with young children earlier, said Rebecca Dutson, CEO of The Children’s Center Utah.

Children and families have a better “experience and can be better contributors to all the things that help an economy flourish” when providers can tackle issues “upstream,” she said.

Well-child visits can be a “first step for families to even know there’s an issue and have some of those first conversations about mental health,” Valle said.

But Utah is low on the number of children going to these visits, she said. Around 40% to 60% have a well-child visit, and numbers are lower in the range as children get older, she said.

The National Survey of Children’s Health found more than 60% of Utah children younger than three hadn’t received a developmental screening.

That’s about in the middle compared to other states and is slightly higher than the national rate of 58.5%

Mitchell agreed early intervention and prevention are key.

There’s a “marked difference” when providers can intervene early, she said, and it can help with making sure people don’t feel as much stigma.

“Supports and services early on don’t have to look like formal mental health treatment,” Mitchell said.

Families need support, she said, and it seems people get “a lot more support in learning how to drive a car than they do in learning how to care for an infant.”

The state has a systematic problem, Hickey said, and a quick solution like restricting social media access isn’t going to fix the problem.

We need to identify problems early on, especially adverse childhood experiences like witnessing violence at home, parental separation and abuse or neglect, he said. The state also needs to help improve access, Hickey said, especially in rural areas.

There are some opportunities for increasing access in Telehealth, he said, especially using the Utah Education and Telehealth Network.

That network connects more than 1,900 locations throughout the state but is “sitting there being underutilized,” Hickey said. It wouldn’t solve the problem but could help with creative solutions, he said.

He added a new program at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute is a great step forward but will “take a number of years to reach its potential.”

Note: This story was updated at 10 a.m. Dec. 1 to reflect that there are mental health providers in Sevier County but were not sufficient treatment facilities there during the rash of youth suicides Hickey referenced.

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Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.