Kids in Crisis: Training the Next Generation of Mental Health Docs

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Five percent of teens under age 18 struggle with severe depression and five percent of all school-aged kids have diagnosed learning disabilities. (KFSN)

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among kids age 10 to 14. Five percent of teens under age 18 struggle with severe depression and five percent of all school-aged kids have diagnosed learning disabilities. Yet, for more than a decade there has been a severe shortage in the number of doctors with the specialized training to tackle kids' mental health issues.

Kennedy Reese is an outgoing nine-year old. But early on, she had trouble interacting with classmates.

Kennedy's father, Vincent, explained her behavior as "Just poking and prodding. Things that you know could be annoying to others."

Kennedy was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but finding help wasn't as easy as one might think.

Mini Tandon, D.O., a child psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Ivanhoe, "There are states that only have a handful of child psychiatrists."

Dr. Tandon has established a community mental health clinic treating kids as young as pre-school. She knows she is an anomaly.

There are only 8,500 child psychiatrists nationwide and an estimated 15 million kids who need help.

After nine years of med school and training, Eric Wittrock, D.O. became a child psychiatry fellow and is now a practicing child psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. This play therapy is subtle, but effective.

Dr. Wittrock detailed, "I think it's a little more sophisticated in that you're trying to draw things out of the child rather than probing them for more information."

Dr. Tandon supervises from behind a two-way mirror. While about twenty percent of the country's med schools don't sponsor child psych residency programs Washington University is expanding theirs.

"If we aren't committed to training the next generation of child psychiatrists then we are going to have a bigger problem than we already have on our hands," Dr. Tandon told Ivanhoe.

The Reese family said they're lucky. Early ADHD intervention made all the difference.

"I could get help for my daughter and break through at an early age, before it became an impediment for her," said Vincent.

Depending upon a child's condition and the state where he lives, new patients can wait anywhere between one and six months to be seen. Some say many med students are avoiding the specialty because of the comparatively lower salary.

Some states are addressing the shortage by offering programs to pay off student loans for mental health workers, including child psychiatrists, who agree to work in underserved areas.

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