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As more kids grapple with mental illness, AdventHealth ramps up resources

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AdventHealth for Children is ramping up efforts to help kids and teens in Central Florida struggling with mental illness, said medical director of pediatric psychiatry Dr. Lalit Chaube, recognizing the growing number of children in crisis amid a shortage of resources.

In one year, AdventHealth for Children’s emergency departments treated more than 500 patients for self-harm and suicidal ideation, and the health system’s pediatricians saw over 1,600 children dealing with anxiety and depression.

“That’s about 10 to 12 patients a week who were in crisis in our emergency department,” Chaube said. “Our pediatricians are seeing two to three patients a day with mental health issues, and if you add ADD and ADHD to that, the number doubles or triples easily. So the scope is big. The scope is so big that we don’t always have the resources to provide basic services.”

Chaube joined a Table of Experts panel hosted by the Orlando Business Journal to discuss the alarming state of youth mental health, the impact on parents and families, and what employers can do to ensure team members are supported.

Panelists discussed how the need for mental health services is rapidly outpacing the community’s resources. A recent study by Heart of Florida United Way found that addressing gaps in Orange County’s mental and behavioral health system will take $49 million. Another analysis ranked Florida 49th in spending on mental health services and found that the state only has 19% of the psychiatrists it needs.

Headshot of Dr. Lalit Chaube
Dr. Lalit Chaube

To narrow that gap, AdventHealth for Children has established Central Florida’s first comprehensive pediatric mental health program, with the goal of expanding access to pediatric mental health care, increasing early diagnosis and intervention, helping families navigate the complex mental and behavioral health care system, and reducing ER visits and hospitalizations for children.

Made possible by a $6 million grant from Dr. Phillips Charities and led by Dr. Chaube, the program employs two psychiatrists, a licensed clinical social worker, licensed mental health counselor and nurse navigator, and there are plans to recruit a nurse practitioner and psychologist. The program works in tandem with a pediatric mental health navigator who acts as a liaison between families and the community’s resources, helping make referrals to get kids on the right path toward healing and addressing families’ medical, educational and financial needs.

About 50 children are seen every week, and since opening last year, the program has received more than 650 referrals. Recognizing that parents sometimes wait months to see a provider, a few appointments are kept open every day for children who need to be seen right away.

“The hope is once we are fully staffed, fully up and running, to have 10,000 visits a year for psychiatry and 5,500 visits for psychology,” Chaube said.

Such programs have never been more important as mental illness among children and teens is at an all-time high in the United States, with the Mental Health Association reporting that more than 2.7 million youth are experiencing severe major depression. Yet only 40% receive treatment.

To combat that statistic, Chaube stressed the importance of eliminating the stigma around mental health that keeps kids from speaking up when they’re struggling. That starts by empowering parents to regularly check in with their kids and validate their emotions, so when something is wrong, there is a foundation of trust and kids feel comfortable going to their parents for help.

“My advice to parents is to listen to your kids and validate their feelings. A parent might think their child has no reason to feel sad, but they are in fact feeling sad,” Chaube said. “Being empathetic to your child’s feelings is so important, because if you shut them down, that might discourage them from ever opening up again.”

That philosophy is also core to AdventHealth for Children and United Way’s new movement empowering parents, kids and all Central Floridians to “Be a Mindleader.”

The campaign is designed to get expert information into the hands of parents to help facilitate life-saving conversations and connect them to the resources they need, plus educate kids in elementary, middle and high school about ways they can care for their mental health and ask for help when they need it.

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