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Knowledge and Support from Family Doctors is Key for Families Living with Mental Illness

By Bob Carolla, Director of Media Relations

A broad gap exists between family needs and the knowledge and resources of primary care doctors, such as pediatricians, in treating children and teens who live with serious mental illness. The findings, published in a new NAMI report, are based on a survey of families about their experiences with primary care.

Sixty-three percent of families reported their child first exhibited behavioral or emotional problems at 7 years or younger, but only 34 percent said their primary care doctors were "knowledgeable" about mental illness.

Sixty-four percent said the doctors also were not knowledgeable about local resources and support for families.

Those numbers do not mean that physicians are not trying to provide support, but they do point to the need for better training and changes in routine practice. NAMI has also published a brochure for primary care doctors and on how to better communicate and partner with families.

"Most Americans rely on family doctors and pediatricians for early detection of mental illness, and in many cases, treatment," said NAMI Executive Director Michael Fitzpatrick. "We also know there is a critical shortage of more than 20,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists nationwide."

"Family dependence on primary care for mental health needs is especially great in smaller communities and rural regions. Primary care professionals need to be prepared to meet the challenge."

A key area of concern is early screening and evaluation.

“Primary care physicians who can help diagnose potential mental illness can save a child and parents years of pain,” said one family member who participated in the survey.

Families are anxious for mental health screening tools, including checklists and questionnaires.

On May 19, the TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Check-ups for Children at Columbia University announced that training materials, including screening questionnaires, for school and community programs are now available online for the first time. Online resources designed specifically for primary care practices are included on the site.

“If you don’t ask, you’re not going to get an answer,” said a 15-year-old student who participated in a TeenScreen program in Illinois. In any setting children and teens may be reluctant to ask for help.

“Just ask the child ‘Is anything bothering you today?’ Sometimes all it takes is the question of concern and they open up like a book,” said one NAMI survey participant.

Another survey participant suggested, “Doctors should screen all children, listen to parents concerns, and alleviate stigma attached to mental health.”

The survey offers practical advice that can easily be adhered to. For example, families want handouts, fact sheets, and brochures, lists of books and websites and lists of local support groups or education workshops—many of which are offered by NAMI.

NAMI's Child and Adolescent Action Center conducted the primary care survey between June 3 and July 1, 2009, but the results and analysis were not released until this month. The 554 respondents who completed the survey were parents of children diagnosed with mental illness before the age of 18.

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