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Rebecca Dutson and Dave Baldridge: Utah needs to improve mental health services for young people

Early intervention is key to changing the trajectory for troubled children.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) This Nov. 14, 2019, photo shows notes attached to the Resilience Project board on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah.

The Children’s Center, a Utah-based organization providing mental health services to infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families, commissioned the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah to conduct a study using state-specific data to analyze risk, reach and potential return on investment in terms of children’s mental health in Utah.

This recently released landmark study highlights some sobering facts. Already a critical issue, the lack of early childhood mental health resources is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that the risks of unaddressed mental health needs of young children could significantly increase.

Currently, Utah is among a group of states that has the highest prevalence of mental health disorders in youths ages 6-17. Utah is also among a group of states that has the highest prevalence of youths with untreated mental health needs.

With no surprise, we learned there is an uneven distribution of mental health programs and providers. And that cost, transportation, bilingual professionals and waiting lists are all barriers to families seeking treatment. Finally, we learned that, despite goodwill and intent, there is significant opportunity to increase awareness, emphasize the importance of early childhood mental health and create stronger collaboration between programs.

Further, we know adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have lifelong, negative effects on health and well-being. More than one in six children in Utah (17.6%) ages 0-17 have experienced two or more of the following ACEs: economic hardship; parental divorce or separation; living with someone who had a substance use disorder; being a victim or witness to neighborhood violence; living with someone who had a mental illness, had serious thoughts of suicide, or was severely depressed; being a witness to domestic violence; having a parent serve jail time; being treated or judged unfairly due to race/ethnicity; or experiencing the death of a parent.

It is important to note that ACEs increase risks of mental health concerns, teen pregnancy and a wide range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and, especially important to Utah, suicide. Suicide was the leading cause of death for Utah children and youths ages 10 to 17 in 2018.

We know that early intervention is key to changing the trajectory for children and it is vital we start investing in mental health from the very beginnings of life. When treatment is provided at an early age, many adverse experiences can be addressed, and children can again build strong relationships with their parents and/or caregivers, giving them the tools to succeed in life.

Start with a pediatrician or reach out to The Children’s Center to find the right resources for your child and family. This study is the first step toward strengthening our state’s action. The data is here to provide the foundation for a common understanding among state leaders and providers, generate awareness to the public and drive resources upstream to improve children’s mental health systems and services across Utah.

We now better understand where we are so that we can sharpen our focus on where we need to go. Further, prioritizing early childhood mental health will provide cost savings to individuals and the state. We look to our leaders, legislators and colleagues in the mental health field to join us and collaborate in focusing our efforts upstream.

Rebecca J. Dutson | The Children's Center, Utah

Rebecca Dutson is president and CEO of The Children’s Center, Utah.

Dave Baldridge

Dave Baldridge is chair of The Children’s Center, Utah and the chief operating officer of CHG Healthcare.

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