Early Identification of Mental and Behavioral Health Issues Critical, CT Study Finds

A recent report by the Connecticut-based Center for Children’s Advocacy revealed that early warning signs of mental and behavioral health problems are often not identified until middle school years, but could be uncovered much earlier. In any given year, the report noted that “about one out of every five Connecticut children (87,500 to 125,000) struggles with a mental health condition or substance abuse problem. More than half receive no treatment.”

With a grant from the Connecticut Health Foundation, Dr. Andrea Spencer, dean of the School of Education at Pace University and educational consultant to the Center for Children’s Advocacy, examined children’s educational records to identify how early these warning signs appear.  The report, issued in September 2012, documents the direct link between undiagnosed and unaddressed mental health issues with increases in school suspensions, expulsions and entry into the state’s juvenile justice system.  It also noted that:

  • Over 70% of students diagnosed with mental illness and behavioral health problems by middle school exhibited warning signs by second grade.
  • Almost 25% exhibited red flags during pre-Kindergarten years.

Early indicators, according to the report, included developmental and health issues, adverse social factors and exposure to trauma. The report, entitled “Blind Spot,” found that 25 percent of the children studied had documented traumatic experiences in their records  It recommends implementation of a series of initiatives:

  • Improve screening for mental health risk factors
  • Improve referral to early intervention services (mental health and special education)
  • Improve collaboration between service providers
  • Improve community and parent education about risk factors and support available
  • Improve training and accountability for school staff and other providers

“Red flags for mental and behavioral health problems are often clear before the end of second grade,” said Dr. Spencer. “It is imperative that we improve screening and identification so support for these children can be provided before their academic careers are at risk.”

As a result of this report, the Center for Children’s Advocacy - a Connecticut nonprofit that provides legal support for abused and neglected children - introduced a statewide policy initiative to improve the quality and standard of care for children insured through the Connecticut’s Medicaid (HUSKY A) plan.

In addition, the Center noted that the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) has agreed to convene a task force that includes representatives from the Center for Children’s Advocacy, Department of Children and Families, Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, Office of Policy and Management, Value Options (contracted provider of mental health services under HUSKY/ Medicaid), American Academy of Pediatrics (CT Chapter), Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatrists (CT Chapter), Head Start, developmental pediatricians, Birth to Three Program, Department of Education, and the Connecticut Health Development Institute.

The task force is to review current regulations, make recommendations regarding screening and treatment protocols, and provide recommendations on reimbursement rates for pediatric providers, according to a news release issued by the Center.