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Virginia Group Looks To Expand Access To Child Psychiatric Treatment

Eight years ago, Cristy Corbin began the search for a psychiatrist for her 14-year-old daughter.

Eight years ago, Cristy Corbin began the search for a psychiatrist for her 14-year-old daughter. Megan Pauly/WCVE

Virginia ranks 40th in the country for access to mental health services, according to a recent report from Mental Health America. It can be especially challenging to find psychiatrists for young people. A group of advocates and doctors are asking state lawmakers for more money to change that.

I drove out to Cristy Corbin’s Mechanicsville home last Sunday because she’s a busy lady. She squeezed me in between church and chores.  

She’s a mom and a stepmom to a total of four girls and two rowdy dogs. Her second oldest daughter is McKenzie, now 22. When she was 14, Corbin says McKenzie’s gym teacher noticed that something wasn’t right.

“So McKenzie had on a hooded sweatshirt in 90-something degree weather outside and she [the gym teacher] said you have to take that off. And Mckinsey cried, ‘I don't want to take it off.’ And she encouraged her, you have to take it off,” Corbin said. “And so she took her sweatshirt off and that's when she saw the marks.”

McKenzie was cutting herself. Her gym teacher called a meeting with the school psychologist, nurse and Corbin. That began a years-long journey of hospital visits and suicide attempts. Initially Corbin took McKenzie to the ER, but she wasn’t sick enough to be hospitalized at the time. Corbin says the ER doctor told her to see a therapist.

“So he gave me a name and a phone number and said, call and get an appointment,” Corbin said. “So I did the next day and it was a four month wait.”

There’s an extreme shortage of child psychiatrists across the country, and Virginia is no different. There are only 13 for every 100,000 children here.

“We have had children unfortunately who have committed suicide while they were sitting on a waiting list,” said Sandy Chung, President of the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Chung said one hospital in Norfolk has 400 children waiting for outpatient care.  

“There will never be enough child psychiatrists,” Chung said. “It is incredibly important that primary care take this on and by default we are having to take it on.”

Chung said pediatricians are seeing more cases than ever of depression, anxiety and ADHD in young people, and they don’t always have the tools to prescribe medications. That’s why Chung is working to train pediatricians so they feel more comfortable prescribing psychiatric medication -- if necessary. And if doctors feel like they need more guidance, they can connect with a psychiatrist immediately through a phone call or video conference. This is all part of the new Virginia Mental Health Access Program (VMAP).

Chung and others have asked the state for $1.2 million to help expand it statewide. Ashley Everette with Voices for Virginia’s Children has helped advocate for that funding. It’s included in the House and Senate budgets now. Everette is hopeful it will still be there when the budget is finalized next week.

“We're really excited about the opportunity to expand the Virginia Mental Health Access Program, because it really does bring physicians and pediatricians into this behavioral health transformation that we're trying to do with our state,” Everette said.

Cristy Corbin’s daughter McKenzie eventually got connected to a psychiatrist, and she’s living on her own now. Corbin says she wishes the experience wouldn’t have been so hard.