Health & wellness

Summit focuses on children’s mental health

It was billed as the Children’s Mental Health Summit, the second in a decade, and its organizers hoped it would inspire as much passion for reform as the debut gathering did in 2001.

Among the issues addressed by top officials in Boston yesterday were the high rate of psychotropic drugs consumed by the state’s foster children, poor insurance coverage of family-based services, and the relatively high percentage of substance abuse among Massachusetts teens. The keynote speaker, Pamela Hyde, an Obama appointee who heads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also spoke about the growing awareness that trauma -- including domestic strife, neighborhood violence, and bullying -- undermines children’s mental well-being.

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“It’s not so much what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you,” she said before the gathering of about 150 people in downtown Boston.

While considerable discussion focused on the broad issues that consume lawmakers and public-policy specialists, such as data trends and insurance codes, one speaker urged the gathering to remember that many parents of troubled children remain in the dark about existing services -- and when in crisis, care only about the practical issue of what will help their youngster.

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“Does this treatment work for my child?” said Lisa Lambert, director of the Parent/Professional Advocacy League, a statewide mental health advocacy group.

Several speakers addressed this month’s Government Accountability Office report that found foster children in Massachusetts are nearly four times as likely to be prescribed psychotropic drugs as other children receiving similar Medicaid benefits. The report also found an alarming number of children who are on a regimen of five or more psychotropic drugs.

Some participants were quick to say that psychiatric medications can play an important role for young patients. However, there remain serious questions about why so many children are on multiple drugs, and often, prescribed them by multiple providers, including pediatricians who may not be well-versed in the use of psychiatric medications.

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Despite raising these and other serious issues, many in the gathering emphasized that the state has made great progress, particularly since the first summit. Among the gains was the creation of the Children’s Mental Health Campaign, an advocacy group that continues to lobby for reforms, as well as the commonwealth’s passage of the mental health parity law, and legislation known as Yolanda’s Law, which called on pediatricians to help screen for mental health issues, among other things.

The first summit also inspired the publication of the Boston Bar Association’s How-To Guide to Children’s Mental Health Services -- now in its third edition and made possible through a collaboration with Children’s Hospital Boston -- which has become one of the most downloaded documents of the bar association.

Other speakers and panelists included Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and former state mental health commissioner; Dr. Lauren A. Smith, medical director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health; Danna Mauch, principal at Abt Associates; and Timothy Murphy, president of Beacon Health Strategies. Angelo McClain, the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, was also present.

The closing talk came from US District Court Judge Michael Ponsor, who issued the 2006 landmark ruling, referred to as the Rosie D. case, which required the state to offer intensive home-based mental health services for children on Medicaid with serious emotional disturbances.

Ponsor commended the gathering for their strong -- and patient -- commitment to helping vulnerable children.

“Serving the needs of children with mental health problems, especially poor children, is not for the faint of heart, or for people overly fond of cheap thrills and immediate gratification,” Ponsor said in his written remarks. “It is a very long-term commitment.”

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.
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