Dr. Megan Haughton: Idaho Legislature must act to protect kids' mental health

Dr. Megan Haughton

By Dr. Megan Haughton

After the past two years, you would think we’d all be health experts. We’ve trained ourselves to spot symptoms and methods to keep ourselves safe and healthy, but even amid a health crisis, we are forgetting to talk about mental health. While a recent resolution in the Idaho Legislature highlights the impact of child trauma, investments in the mental health system are needed to improve Idahoan’s access to care. The mental health care system is difficult to navigate, and the pandemic has only made it worse. Idahoans trying to access mental health services face limited availability of services, backlogs and delays in treatment. For children, the stakes are even higher.

I began working as a doctor during the pandemic, and in that time, I have seen that Idaho kids have not been faring well. In fact, the trends are alarming. I have witnessed the rates of emergency room visits and hospitalizations for depression, aggressive behavior and suicidal ideation increase since the beginning of the pandemic. Nearly 1 in 5 Idaho teens experienced major depression in the last year, and two-thirds of those teens received no treatment at all.

We are also seeing patients harming themselves or complaining of depression at a younger age. For kids older than 5, a mental health diagnosis or complaint is one of the most common reasons for hospitalization. We’ve seen kids overdosing on household items such as windshield wiper fluid, Drano, and Tylenol. The pandemic has increased child depression as their social interaction is more limited.

One story that comes to mind is a patient I’ll call Lacey, a 12-year-old who recently moved and started attending a new school. She only had the opportunity to go to class in person a handful of times because of the pandemic. Lacey barely knew her classmates and had only become friends with a couple of other kids. Weeks later, Lacey was admitted to the children’s hospital after an intentional overdose on Tylenol to “hurt herself.” She was depressed about her school situation and was experiencing cyberbullying from these new “friends.” She didn’t know where to turn.

Lacey’s story not only shows the importance of ensuring kids’ access to care but also the value of investing in our mental health care system. Without a well-funded and responsive mental health system, Idaho kids aren’t getting the shot at a bright future that they deserve.

Idaho legislators introduced a resolution encouraging state agencies to educate themselves on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences and investigate policies that promote resiliency in children. This is a first step to what needs to be a deeper discussion about children’s mental health. This legislative session, lawmakers can make it easier for Idaho kids to get the treatment they need by addressing health care workforce shortages, service delays, and low service reimbursement rates. We need Idaho lawmakers to make investments in our children’s future by investing in their mental health.

Dr. Megan Haughton is a Northwest native who recently moved to the Treasure Valley for her family medicine residency program. Her passion for medicine began at a young age, and she served as a maternal and child health volunteer for the Peace Corps in Guatemala before starting medical school at Pacific Northwest University in Yakima.

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