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Health, Science & Environment

Report Finds Early Childhood Mental Services Lacking In Utah

A photo of an upset little girl holding a teddy bear.
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About 1 in 6 children in Utah 17-years-old or younger — roughly 18% — have experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences, which research shows can have significant impacts later in life.

Utah has some of the highest rates of child and adolescent mental health disorders in the country, as well as some of the highest rates of kids with untreated mental health needs, according to a 2019 study in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Another study, released Wednesday by researchers at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, looked into some of the reasons why. It found the state has limited access and an uneven distribution of mental health services for young children. High cost, even for families with insurance, and language barriers also prevent people from getting care.

The consequences are potentially huge, not just for individual children and their families but society at large. The report noted that youth mental, emotional and behavioral disorders nationwide amount to $247 billion per year in treatment, lost productivity and crime.

Kids with untreated mental health issues are less likely to graduate high school or attend college, the institute’s report said. They’re also more likely to become homeless or enter the criminal justice system.

“This time period [from birth until 5-years-old] is paramount in development because of the incredible change that occurs in the brains and abilities of children,” said Jennifer Mitchell, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Children’s Center, during a panel discussion on the report Wednesday.

“These early experiences are critical to the architecture of early brain development and are the foundation for later mental health in children and adults,” she said. “When children experience disruptions to the typical developmental process, there can be lifelong implications.”

One of the major causes of early childhood mental health issues comes from “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs). They include things like emotional, physical and sexual abuse, economic hardship or living with someone with a substance use disorder.

About 15% of adults ages 18 and older in Utah have experienced four or more ACEs in their lives, the report said. That’s on par with the national average, but rates also vary by demographics and geography.

Beaver and Tooele counties have the highest share of adults in the state with four or more ACEs, the report found. American Indians or Alaska Natives also have some of the most adverse experiences of any racial group. Over 30% have had four or more ACEs, which is more than twice the rate of whites in the state and the national average.

Poverty is another major risk factor affecting children’s mental health. The percent of children living in poverty in Utah is lower than the national average — about 10% versus 18% nationwide. But parts of San Juan County, and the Rose Park and Glendale neighborhoods in Salt Lake City, have poverty rates close to double the national average.

Mitchell said part of the solution to increasing access to services across the state will be spreading awareness about the importance of early interventions.

“It's my hope — and one that's shared by many, if not all, early childhood mental health professionals — that our society can collectively shift support in the mental health field in ways that we have tried to do for physical health,” she said. “Prevention is key.”

Authors of the report noted it’s intended to be a starting point for talking about the issue, getting a sense of what services are available in the state and where the greatest needs are. A second phase will work to develop more concrete recommendations and identify where more research is needed.

For parents and caregivers looking for resources, experts at the panel discussion recommended starting with their pediatricians, who can help assess what needs their kids have and point them towards the right services.

They also suggested the Utah Department of Health’s maternal mental health database and the Utah Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guide for parents dealing with mental health challenges during the pandemic.

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