New Resource Aims to Improve Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

A new playbook by The Task Force’s Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII), in collaboration with the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provides a resource to guide health departments on the use of data to assess and improve child and adolescent mental health in a way that respects privacy while sharing information.

The “Using Data to Improve Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMH): the Opening Playbook” identifies ways to use indicators of potential child and adolescent mental health disorders; safely and legally track these types of indicators across health departments; and better engage health departments to prevent the development of severe cases of mental health problems and provide required services.

Although a variety of measures can be used to assess child and adolescent mental health , this playbook highlights readily available indicators (including school readiness, chronic absenteeism, and disciplinary actions) to more fully measure mental health at the population level and supplement other data sources on children’s mental health.

The U.S. Surgeon General reported that even before the pandemic, which has added new stress, data indicated that one in five children had a mental or behavioral disorder in the U.S. With 50% of mental disorders starting by the age of 14, according to the World Health Organization, identifying mental health concerns and intervening early is particularly important.

To improve early intervention, a recent CDC report calls attention to the need for data on healthy development, not just on disorders, and the need for data that are timely and actionable at the local level.

“There are federal and state data about mental disorders and negative outcomes, such as the incidence of depression, suicide and suicidal ideation, but this playbook sets the stage for local public health partners to look at a broader set of mental, emotional, and behavioral capacities in each child,” said Lura Daussat, PHII’s project lead and director of the Practice Support Unit. “For example, by encouraging the use of data not just about the absence of a mental disorder but also a child’s wellbeing, including how well they function where they live, learn and play.”

Historically, Daussat said, caregivers like schools and doctors have been cautious around sharing data on mental health with each other and with health departments due to sensitivity and privacy concerns, which can hamper health providers’ ability to develop informed solutions. Now, thanks to collaboration with the Network for Public Health Law, this playbook clarifies the legal considerations around data sharing and reinforces that privacy laws shouldn’t “be used as crutches to prevent data sharing,” said Daussat.

The goal is for this resource to serve as a stepping stone to the collection of local data to improve child and adolescent mental health, said Daussat, using readily available indicators as a starting point for  those interested in assessing and improving child and adolescent mental health  to intervene earlier at the root causes of negative mental health outcomes.

“PHII was sought out for this project because of our expertise in taking data and turning it into information,” said Daussat.

As a next step, PHII and the partners will develop a roadmap for implementing the playbook’s best practices and improving processes between the public health sector and other sectors focused on children and adolescents.

Header photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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