Children everywhere are feeling the unpredictable effects of COVID and the resulting societal change, including family insecurity, job loss, eviction, and domestic violence. This has led many kids to experience developmental regressions such as lapses with potty training and sleeping with their parents again. Sadly, most mental health experts agree that we won’t see the true outcome of depression and anxiety in this population for another 5-7 years.

The family structure is typically a child’s main safeguard in the face of mental health concerns. Yet, this dynamic is becoming increasingly unsupportive as everyone faces their own struggles. This has trapped many kids in bad home situations with no lifeline. On top of that, kids are isolated from their friends and don’t have the skills to communicate how they feel. High levels of anxiety hinder playtime, which is their primary outlet for stress. Play is also how children heal. So, despite recent strides in telehealth, virtual talk therapy is not suitable for children ages 3-12 who require more engaging and interactive treatments.

The disconnect between virtual care options and the treatment needs of kids places increased demand on the already-dwindling numbers of behavioral health specialists for kids. This adds more vulnerability to at-risk youth who are unable to get the care they need. A lack of mental health clinicians has placed added responsibilities on the shoulders of primary care providers, who now diagnose 80% of all mental health concerns and prescribe 85% of all psychiatric medications.

Some may believe this is an effective way to fill a gap in care; however, 92% of these mental health diagnoses are inaccurate. Such errors can lead to profound negative effects, as youth suicide rates are spiking. Native populations are particularly at risk, and have experienced a 78% increase in suicide. With 40% more adolescents attempting suicide in recent months, preventive measures are also feeling the pressure. Suicide hotlines have seen a 230% increase in calls since the onset of COVID.

There are no simple solutions to this public health issue, so provider networks must become creative in their efforts to connect members with quality behavioral health services. Some possibilities include specialized training for primary care physicians to increase their awareness of mental health warning signs in children. Many providers don’t know how anxiety, depression, and other concerns manifest in children, so they may miss the mark at a time when early identification is crucial. Children can also be indirectly aided through mental health efforts for adults. This will encourage more stability in the family unit and, therefore, in children.

Until there is an answer to the lack of qualified providers, networks must keep up with continually growing enrollment numbers to avoid costly network inadequacy fines. TOG Network Solutions takes a holistic approach to building provider networks by considering the various health needs of patient populations. TOG is anticipating and responding to demand increases to help provider networks during this trying time.

Special thank you to Thomas R. Young, M.D., Chief Medical Officer and Co-Founder of Nview Health Inc. for serving as the lead resource for this article.