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New program in Valley to address child psychiatrist shortage

(AP Photo)

PHOENIX – Health experts worry the coronavirus pandemic could take a toll on children’s mental health, but a shortage of child psychiatrists in the Valley is leading to long wait times for them and their families.

It can take weeks and even months to see a child psychiatrist. To help alleviate the shortage, Phoenix Children’s Hospital Network launched a new program.

“Our thought was maybe we need to reach out and collaborate with pediatricians and put together an educational program where we’ll cover various topics,” Dr. John Zaharopoulos, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the hospital, said.

Psychiatry Faculty Learning Community pediatricians and primary care providers will be trained to screen, diagnose and treat children with depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The program is free to health care providers within the hospital network. They’ll also be able to consult with child psychiatrists at the hospital and refer patients to them.

Zaharopoulos said the idea came from seeing a shortage of child psychiatrists. He said about 1 million children live in Maricopa County, but there are just over 100 child psychiatrists.

“That is seen as a very underrepresented number,” he said. “Even if 1% of the kids were in crisis at any point in time, that’s just not nearly enough child psychiatrists.”

As a result, pediatricians and family practice doctors are on the front lines trying to address children’s mental health issues.

Zaharopoulos said these doctors have some training but “not nearly as much as they probably should.”

He said the program will help them get the training they need while also get them thinking about screening more for mental health issues.

“It hopefully will catch a lot more mental health issues earlier,” he said.

“And if we can get treatment going earlier on these kids and get them stable a lot quicker, their outcomes are just that much better.”

This comes as health experts worry about how children’s mental health is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Zaharopoulos said younger children will likely experience more anxiety from seeing the stress their parents are facing.

For teens, he said the absence of social interactions they’re used to is likely affecting them the most.

He added Phoenix Children’s Hospital doesn’t start seeing an increase in emergency room visits by children who need to be hospitalized for mental health issues until October or November.

“Our emergency room is already very busy,” Zaharopoulos said.

“It makes me think ‘Well, what’s different?’ The difference is that we’ve been going through COVID-19.”

For all articles, information and updates on the coronavirus from KTAR News, visit ktar.com/coronavirus.

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