Could pediatricians learn to diagnose mental health issues to help with provider shortage?

More than 160 million Americans live in areas with shortages of mental health professionals. The shortage is even more severe among providers who treat children.

Dr. Rachel Petersen-Nguyen, who works as a pediatrician at Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul, is offering up a potential solution, and it starts with doctors just like her.

"Every day that I see kids, we're helping with mental health concerns," she said. 

She believes the situation was especially bad during the lockdown part of the pandemic.

"I was seeing kids more than once a day with suicidal ideation. I was seeing younger kids than I'd ever seen with suicidal ideation," Petersen-Nguyen said. 

But it's still a very present situation for families now. Almost a third of Minnesota students struggle with long-term mental health problems, according to the state's student survey last year.

"I would love to be able to refer all of the patients to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and it's not possible. If I refer them, they are sometimes waiting two months, six months, or two years to see someone," she explained.

To help alleviate the severe shortage of mental health providers, Dr. Petersen-Nguyen believes pediatricians can learn to diagnose and treat common conditions like ADHD, anxiety and depression in their own offices without having to refer them. She works with The REACH Institute, a nonprofit that trains providers and hospital systems. 

Though mental health wasn't a big part of primary care training 10 or 20 years ago, she said it's not too late to change that.

"When we can feel confident in that diagnosis and start that treatment, often we help kids and families pretty quickly. And then that leaves space and time for the mental health specialists to see the kids that are more complicated," she explained.

State data shows that 80 percent of Minnesota counties are designated as having a shortage of mental health professionals.