There’s a mental health care provider shortage in America, and Northwest Arkansas is no different. While it’s critical for children to be seen quickly, this CDC interactive map shows that many counties have no – or very few – psychiatrists or psychologists to respond if a child is in need of mental help.
That’s why one year ago, Mercy took steps to meet kids’ needs in the place they’re used to going: their pediatrician or family medicine doctor’s office.
“We knew we needed to expand the number of doctors who feel they’re able to competently diagnose kids with mental illness and get them started right away on a treatment plan,” said Dr. Kyle John, Mercy pediatric psychiatrist. “Most pediatricians and family medicine doctors only spend a day in medical school focusing on mental health, so we set out to provide them with the additional tools they needed.”
After years with Mercy caring for kids in an office setting, Dr. John joined the team at Mercy Virtual – the world’s first health care facility dedicated entirely to care outside its walls – to create a training program dubbed vMentalWellness Kids. As part of the program, Mercy pediatricians, pediatric subspecialists and family medicine doctors receive training to strengthen their skills in diagnosing the four most common mental issues in children:
Now, a year later, more than 1,200 patients have benefited from the program. Nearly 250 Mercy caregivers across Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas have been trained, including more than two dozen in Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith.
Dr. Susan Sullivan, a pediatrician at Mercy Clinic Pediatrics – Highway 102, said that before the virtual consult became available, patients often waited months for a definitive diagnosis and plan of treatment.
“After seeing a dramatic increase not only in mental health concerns in our clinic but also in life threatening suicide attempts in the hospital, we knew something had to change,” Dr. Sullivan said. “By offering easier, faster and quality access to experts in mental health, we hope to continue to keep our patients physically and mentally well.”
What makes vMentalWellness Kids innovative is that the Mercy Virtual team is always on standby to consult with local Mercy providers. They can view the patient’s electronic health record, review medical history and medications and help make a diagnosis. In a few cases, when a patient with a more complicated issue comes in, the virtual team has provided an immediate, secure video visit to assess the symptoms.
“I have loved having access to a team of mental health professionals to offer guidance in some more difficult cases,” said Dr. Cassie Dyer, a pediatrician at Mercy Clinic Pediatrics – Highway 102. “They are able to provide more specialized help very quickly. I feel much more confident in providing mental health care with the Mercy Kids Behavioral Health virtual team just a few clicks away.”
For families, it means immediate help in a familiar setting instead of waiting months for an appointment and traveling to see a specialist. Sarah Ford, a 14-year-old Mercy patient in Springfield, Missouri, encourages other kids to ask for help like she did.
“It’s scary at first, when you ask for help,” she said. “I was afraid of being locked away or something, but it was the opposite of that. My biggest fear when I walked in was that no one could help me, but they did.”
According to Mental Health America, rates of severe depression in children continue to increase significantly, while more than 1.7 million kids who’ve had major depressive episodes have not received treatment.
Northwest Arkansas providers
Mercy Clinic Pediatrics
Mercy Clinic Family Medicine - Downtown Rogers
Mercy Clinic Primary Care - Moberly Lane
Mercy Clinic Family Medicine and Obstetrics - Physicians Plaza
Fort Smith providers
Mercy Clinic Internal Medicine and Pediatrics - Dallas Street