Dr. Megan Haughton: The Idaho Legislature must act to protect children’s mental health

Dr. Megan Haughton

By Dr. Megan Haughton

After the past two years, you’d think we’d all be health experts. We’ve practiced spotting the symptoms and ways to stay safe and healthy, but even in the midst of a health crisis, we forget to talk about mental health. While a recent Idaho Legislature resolution highlights the impact of trauma on children, investments in the mental health system are needed to improve access to care in Idahoan. The mental health care system is difficult to navigate and the pandemic has only made matters worse. Idahoans trying to access mental health services face limited service availability, backlogs, and treatment delays. For children, the stakes are even higher.

I started working as a doctor during the pandemic, and during that time I saw that the kids in Idaho weren’t doing well. In fact, the trends are alarming. I have seen the rates of emergency room visits and hospitalizations for depression, aggressive behavior and suicidal ideation increase since the start of the pandemic. Nearly one in five Idaho teens has suffered from major depression in the past year, and two-thirds of those teens have not received treatment.

We also see patients hurting themselves or complaining of depression at a younger age. For children over the age of 5, a mental health diagnosis or complaint is one of the most common reasons for hospitalization. We’ve seen kids overdose on household items like windshield washer fluid, Drano, and Tylenol. The pandemic has increased depression in children because their social interaction is more limited.

One story that comes to mind is that of a patient I will call Lacey, a 12-year-old girl who recently moved and started attending a new school. She has only had the opportunity to attend class in person a handful of times due to the pandemic. Lacey barely knew her classmates and only became friends with a few other kids. Weeks later, Lacey was admitted to Children’s Hospital after an intentional overdose of Tylenol to “harm herself.” She was depressed about her school situation and was being cyberbullied by these new “friends”. She didn’t know where to turn.

Lacey’s story not only shows the importance of ensuring children’s access to care, but also the value of investing in our mental health care system. Without a well-funded and responsive mental health system, children in Idaho don’t get the chance to have the bright future they deserve.

Idaho lawmakers introduced a resolution encouraging state agencies to learn about the impact of negative childhood experiences and investigate policies that promote resilience in children. This is a first step towards what needs to be a deeper discussion about children’s mental health. This legislative session, lawmakers can make it easier for children in Idaho to get the treatment they need by addressing health care worker shortages, service delays and low service reimbursement rates. We need Idaho lawmakers to invest in the future of our children by investing in their mental health.

Dr. Megan Haughton is originally from the North West and recently moved to Treasure Valley for her family medicine residency program. Her passion for medicine began at a young age and she volunteered in Maternal and Child Health for the Peace Corps in Guatemala before starting medical school at Pacific Northwest University in Yakima.

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