MD Department of Health launches partnership to address youth behavioral health

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The Maryland Department of Health has announced a partnership designed to establish a road map for improving the state’s youth behavioral health.

The department’s partnership with the Maryland Coalition of Families and Manatt Health will make new school-based initiatives and investments in youth crisis services, Maryland Health Secretary Laura Herrera Scott said in a news release Wednesday.

Until December, the groups plan to conduct a current state assessment, create an internal report and prepare a road map with proposed policy changes for behavioral health, which includes mental health and substance use. The Maryland Coalition of Families is already meeting with stakeholders to contribute to the proposal, which will be presented to the Department of Health, according to the coalition’s chief development officer Karen Duffy.

“The intent is not to just give them a document that will sit on the shelf,” Duffy said. “They want something that’s actionable, something that can operationalize pretty quickly to make the necessary changes to the children’s behavioral health system.”

Although there is not a specific focus for the road map yet, some topics the plan may address include early intervention and prevention programs, mobile crisis response systems and hospital inpatient emergency departments, Duffy said.

The Department of Health chose to collaborate with the Maryland Coalition of Families because it has a strong presence in the children’s health community and workers with “lived experiences” addressing these issues, said Laura Torres, a director at the health department’s Behavioral Health Administration.

“An organization like MCF, which is on the ground on a regular basis already working with these families, they are trusted and they also have family members at their fingertips that they can ask,” Torres said.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed nationally that there has been a spike in mental health issues among children, which has now become a concern for several years, Torres said.

There are several children’s behavioral health issues facing both the state and the nation.

Some children who go into emergency departments for mental health crises are unable to move to another bed for inpatient hospitalization, leaving them in emergency departments for days, Duffy said. Children are experiencing co-occurring disorders, where mental health disorders and substance use may become intertwined with each other, she said.

There is also a workforce shortage among behavioral health providers, Duffy added.

The new partnership is an opportunity for the state to take a step back and reexamine how it addresses children’s behavioral health, said Sharon Hoover, a professor in the child and adolescent psychiatry division at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Rural communities outside of central Maryland tend to experience a lack of behavioral health care providers, Hoover said. Even in urban areas with more resources, systems that address children’s behavioral health may not be well-coordinated, she said. There are usually greater vulnerabilities in specific populations, including the LBGTQ+ student population, Hoover added.

Hoover said she is “excited” for the road map and looking forward to the plan providing behavioral health efforts directly in schools.

“For young people to thrive in school and in their communities, and for them to be college and career ready, it’s absolutely essential that they’re mentally healthy,” she said. “If we want to focus on school success of our young people, we also have to focus on their mental health.”

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