Depressed Teens Have Big Trouble Getting Help

How parents can make sure their kids don't fall through the cracks.

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Most of the teenagers with major depression never get treatment for it, according to a new federal report. That depressing news comes as no surprise to pediatricians and teens' mental-health providers, who say that many kids and parents don’t recognize depression’s symptoms. And if they do, it can be difficult or impossible to get help. This is no small problem; about 2 million teenagers experience clinical depression each year, an illness that can derail school performance and friendships and is a leading cause of teen suicide.

[Consider ways to raise kids who can cope.]

The new Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report found that just 39 percent of teens with major depression got treatment. Here are three ways to make sure your child doesn’t fall through the cracks.

Getting diagnosed. Last month, a federal task force asked pediatricians and family doctors to screen all teenagers for depression. Courtney Jones, a 17-year-old in Portland, Ore., told my colleague Lindsay Lyon that depression screening saved her life when she was 14. She didn’t recognize that her loss of confidence and sudden lack of interest in spending time with friends were warning signs. Symptoms of depression include frequent sadness, decreased interest in activities, and hopelessness. (Here’s a list of symptoms of teen depression from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.)

Finding help. It’s no surprise to healthcare professionals that families have a hard time finding mental-health services; there are only 7,418 child and adolescent psychiatrists in the United States, or about 1 for every 10,000 kids. Legislation pending in Congress would help fund training for more children’s mental-health professionals. But for now, the best first step is screening by a pediatrician or family practice doctor, with referral to a counselor, social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist for therapy and perhaps medication. 

I recently got firsthand practical advice on finding therapy from David Palmiter, a clinical psychologist who often speaks to community groups about access to mental-health care. His advice includes checking out local universities, which often run clinics to train graduate students, as well as community mental-health clinics. 

Paying for therapy. Paying for healthcare is a struggle these days, and mental-health services can be ever harder to cover. The SAMHSA report found that lack of health insurance coverage was the biggest barrier to getting help. Only 17.2 percent of teens without health insurance coverage were able to get treatment, compared with 42 percent who were covered by Medicaid or CHIP and 41 percent who had private health insurance.

Here are 6 ways to find affordable mental-health care. Palmiter says it’s totally fine to ask a therapist to give you a break on the fee—but only after you’ve established a relationship. In other words, give the therapist a chance to get to know your kid and be invested in helping her or him get better.