Demand for pediatric mental health services increased in Maryland during pandemic, study finds


Nicole Pasia


The demand for pediatric mental health services, particularly for more complex diagnoses, increased in Maryland during the COVID-19 pandemic according to a study from Psychiatric Services released this week. 

Amie F. Bettencourt, Ph.D, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, led the research effort, which studied increases in call volumes at Pediatric Mental Health Care Access (PMHCA) programs in Maryland and Mississippi. 


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PMHCA programs are located in 40 states, Washington, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Republic of Palau, the Chickasaw Nations, and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. The programs increase access to pediatric mental health care by providing pediatric primary care providers (PCPs) with resources and training to integrate mental health screening in routine checkups. 

From April 2020 to March 2021, monthly call volumes increased for both states increased.


Image: Psychiatric Services


In particular, Maryland saw a 17% increase in calls for patients with multiple behavioral health diagnoses over the pandemic. Calls that concerned anxiety and mood swings symptoms also increased. When studying the effect of the pandemic, research found that PMHCA programs experienced higher call volume after the onset of social-distancing measures. The study also noted a change in severity of services needed: 

“Mental health problems addressed by PMHCA programs during COVID-19 were not as severe but were of greater complexity compared with the pre–COVID-19 period, as shown by greater proportions of patients with comorbid psychiatric diagnoses.” 

The study concluded PMHCA programs are vital to responding to the increased demand for pediatric mental health services. 

“Bolstering the knowledge and skills of [PCPs] in managing common pediatric mental health problems has been identified as one way to address the services gap; this endeavor may be even more critical during the pandemic, when mental health concerns are on the rise.”

Documented benefits of these programs include fewer antipsychotic prescriptions, more providers to address mental health concerns, and increasing access to mental health resources.

The study noted not all PCPs attending to children with complex mental health cases may be using resources from PMHCA programs, nor did it document changes in patients’ symptoms or severity. The study called for more research on how and when PCPs decide to seek PMHCA assistance, as well as how patient symptoms and severity affect program usage. 

Maryland’s program received an award of over $2 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), and additional state support from the Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Administration (BHA). It currently operates as a joint effort by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Salisbury University, and Morgan State University.