Stress, anxiety skyrocket for families

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By the third week of September, New Jersey families were reaching breaking point. Parents struggled to get their children back into the school routine after a year of largely unstructured distance learning, as children resisted – fearing of contracting COVID-19 and overwhelmed by the loss of loved ones and time with friends.

Daily calls to a state children’s health network peaked at 559 at the start of the week, a third more than the volume at that time in 2020, according to data provided by the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF).

The system’s mobile response unit, which visits families in crisis at home, was dispatched 150 times a day in mid-September and nearly hit that daily peak the following week, the data showed – an increase of 20% compared to last year’s volume. Over 1,000 children were referred for services over two weeks, the most in months.

“Adjusting to something as simple as waking up on time and taking the bus after not doing it for a year can be a struggle, and that transition can be further hampered and complicated by feelings. stress, anxiety and fear, ”said DCF Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer.

The state has taken steps to identify children in difficulty and help families find appropriate support services. But mental health care providers warn that there is already a capacity shortage within New Jersey’s community caregiver network – the nonprofit and private practices to which clients are referred – leaving some families to wait weeks beforehand. to be able to access care.

“We ask parents to be aware of the signs – maybe it’s unusual mood swings, or increased and prolonged behaviors of fighting or lying, or maybe it’s the kids who aren’t. ‘don’t enjoy the activities they once enjoyed. “

Norbut Beyer said on Wednesday that the DCF system has the resources to help more residents and urged parents to closely monitor their children. “We ask parents to be aware of the signs – perhaps these are unusual mood swings, or increased and prolonged fighting or lying behaviors, or perhaps not enjoying the activities they are doing. they used to like it, ”she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask your kids what’s wrong and normalize asking for help when they need it.

Struggling with the transition back to school

To facilitate this process, state officials on Wednesday unveiled a new youth mental health portal on the state’s COVID-19 website to serve as a one-stop behavioral health resource that contains hotline numbers. relevant and links to other services, tailored to specific audiences.

“Children and families are really grappling with anxiety and the transition to school,” said Louis Schwarcz, CEO of The Bridge, which provides behavioral health services to families and individuals in the counties of Essex and Union. “It’s been a really, really tough year for all of us. “

Norbut Beyer also urged parents with long-suffering children to call on the Children’s System of Care, a network of providers specializing in behavioral health and services for people with disabilities – and open to all families regardless of income. The system, managed by PerformCare NJ, can send mobile units to help families in crisis, support children through school programs and refer individuals to community outpatient services for ongoing treatment.

Although Gov. Phil Murphy tried unsuccessfully to cut state funding for school services last year, on Wednesday he touted the investment of $ 100 million this year to expand care under of the children’s system to better meet growing needs. As of September, more than 15,000 families had care managed through the system, at least 1,000 more than the year before, DCF said.

Despite this increased demand for services, the state’s children’s system is still able to help more families, officials said. With the new funding, “our network of youth behavioral health service providers have the resources, skills and capacity to help young people and their families when needed,” Norbut Beyer said Wednesday.

Waiting lists for outpatient and individual care

Behavioral health experts praised New Jersey’s child care system, but cautioned that capacity remains a challenge for community providers who accept referrals from this state program. While the DCF system – which also serves as an early intervention initiative to identify health issues – may have the resources to perform additional family assessments, it could take these families weeks to obtain outpatient care.

“I have a lot of concerns that people are getting advice when and where they need it,” said Carolyn Beauchamp, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of New Jersey. Group programs are more widely available, she said, but one-on-one sessions are hard to come by.

“The reality is that it is difficult to find a therapist now because of the number of people who are struggling and suffering.”

Schwarcz said The Bridge is busier than usual. “We are seeing more than ever a multitude of calls to our mental health hotline,” he said, adding that most organizations have a waiting list to access care. “Outpatient services are extensive,” Schwarcz continued. “The reality is that it is difficult to find a therapist now because of the number of people who are struggling and suffering.”

DCF spokesperson Nicole Brossoie said PerformCare includes more than 175 providers who offer a variety of services and hire professionals based on the needs of each agency and the community it serves. Wait times depend on the type of treatment, she said, and although the mobile emergency unit can be dispatched on demand, home services “may take time to coordinate” depending on the location and capacity of the supplier.

Unequal access

Access to care is not necessarily equal, the experts also noted. Dr Gary Rosenberg, child psychiatrist and assistant professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, said young people with more severe needs can get treatment faster while children with less urgent problems sometimes struggle. to access care. “There may be a lot of services available in the state,” he said, “but it can clearly be difficult to access treatment.”

To increase capacity, Rosenberg is urging the state to expand an existing program that pairs pediatricians with psychiatrists – who are rare in New Jersey and across the country – who can counsel them over the phone when they encounter medical needs. behavioral health. “I think it’s an important element,” he said. “Every primary care physician should have access to this program. “

Some providers have said that telehealth can help them reach other patients as well. Schwarcz called this a “huge breakthrough” for some consumers and said it was a very popular option at The Bridge. But he fears that the payments now available for these remote services will dry up as the pandemic recedes. “Fewer people cancel (appointments) and more people participate in care” in telehealth, he said. “A lot of our clients don’t want to go face-to-face. “

But Beauchamp said she was concerned that telehealth would be less effective for mental health care and worried about the impact it was having on the workforce. With the explosion of online and telephone counseling services nationwide, she said these companies are turning counselors and other clinicians away from community providers by promising them better wages and other benefits, such as working at residence. “A significant number of clinicians are opting for this,” she said.

School programs are also essential in identifying and helping children with mental health needs, experts agreed, and several praised the Murphy administration for shielding school programs originally offered for a budget cut last year. On Tuesday, Murphy signed a bill that requires schools to perform regular mental health screenings and appropriates $ 1 million to launch the initiative.

While the pandemic has triggered anxiety and depression in many New Jerseyans – including some mental health providers – Schwarcz said there was a silver lining in more people talking about these problems, reducing the stigma somewhat. “We are all in the same fish bowl. And it’s true in schools too, ”he said. “We’re all in trouble now. We need to continue to get people to ask for help. “


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