Why do good students end up in prison? Often the underlying cause is an untreated mental health condition. Take the story of a 13-year-old girl we’ll call Marisol, who suffered from depression following the death of her father.
As recounted to the Houston Chronicle editorial board by Dr. Andrew Keller, chief executive officer at The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, this star student’s grief led to her to become inattentive and disengaged with others at school. Her grades started to fall. Hopes of a scholarship that had been within reach began to fade.
Alarmed at the changes in her daughter, her mother took her to see a primary care physician. Unsure of treatment options, the physician shied away from Marisol’s mental condition.
Unfortunately, Marisol sought solace from a gang-member boyfriend. She was arrested while in his company. After her release, any chance of a scholarship evaporated.
This young woman’s downfall wasn’t inevitable. The outcome might have been different if Marisol’s primary care doctor had known to recommend therapy or prescribe an antidepressant.
Marisol’s story is a composite of so many struggles that teenagers can face after their lives are wracked by an emotional crisis. Our doctors should be prepared to diagnose and treat these sorts of mental health needs with all the same training and expertise reserved for a bacterial infection or broken bone.
Integrated behavioral health care, which helps primary care and behavioral health providers work together to form a shared treatment plan, can lift depression for students like Marisol, help them overcome an understandable sorrow and set them on the right path.
Think of it as preventative mental health care that will help keep kids from dropping out of school or making some other bad life choice. Youth like Marisol who live with mental health and substance-use disorders require help earlier rather than later if they are to have a chance to live a full life.
However, persuading primary care doctors to provide more robust mental health screening, as recommended by a new report issued by The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute and supported by Houston Endowment, is easier said than done.
Most primary care doctors who practice in clinical settings already are overwhelmed with the needs of their patients. Many doctors have not been trained to do mental health screenings. Other may worry that they’re not knowledgeable enough.
As a consequence, without guidance from a primary care provider, too many children in need of help risk slipping through the cracks. Research shows that Hispanics in particular are reluctant to go to specialists such as psychiatrists.
Responsibility falls on County Judge Ed Emmett and Mayor Sylvester Turner to convene a group of public and private health system and insurance executives, school superintendents and philanthropic organizations to develop a mental health plan. That plan should include strategies to increase mental health screening and care delivery at the primary level.
Successful programs around the country demonstrate that if Harris County works together it can create a better system. The unlimited future of Houston’s kids depends on coordinated action.