From the October 2017 issue

Navigating the Mental Health System

How to keep insurance problems, stigma and other barriers from interfering with your child's mental health care.

Brought to you by Flinn Foundation

For families affected by mental illness, sometimes the greatest challenges are the ones most beyond their control.

Despite the struggles that can come with mental illness, the biggest stressors many parents face are less about their child’s diagnosis and more related to health insurance, school services, bullying or stigma.

These are just some of the common barriers you’ll find when navigating the mental health system, says Jennifer Lindsey, autism and mental health supervisor at the Judson Center, a nonprofit human services agency based in Royal Oak.

Overcoming these barriers is key to getting the best support for your child. For many people, the stigma of mental illness – a major societal barrier – stands in the way of even seeking help to begin with.

“Stigma and discrimination – it’s totally woven in together. There are stereotypes and prejudices about getting that help, and getting services, and that can also be cultural,” Lindsey says. “Different cultures view mental health services differently.”

Parents should know that their personal information – and their child’s information – will be kept confidential unless it deals with plans of self-harm or harming others.

“We work really hard in the mental health world that everybody knows at the first session about confidentiality. We are bound to that,” Lindsey says.

The stigma is especially challenging for children and can contribute to bullying problems in school. Despite “no bullying” policies, more mental health awareness is needed in schools – “not just checking the box” without implementing effective strategies, she says.

The school setting presents another common barrier for families as they try to access special education support from districts that, while required to accommodate children’s needs, have limited resources to do so. For many parents, it becomes a battle.

“That can definitely be a hiccup for parents,” Lindsey says, and that’s especially the case when a child’s needs are less severe. “It can really be a struggle and it can be really stressful trying to navigate that.”

Parents can work to overcome this through persistence, escalating concerns to administration officials when needed, enlisting the help of an advocate outside the school and building a support network of other parents. Organizations like the Judson Center also try to help bridge the gap for their therapy clients.

“We try to obtain a release of information so we can contact the school and communicate,” which can help school staff and private therapists work as a team to help the child, she says. “We want to encourage and nurture that.”

And the most prevalent barrier of all, perhaps, is how people will pay for mental health services. In fact, it’s often the first question a parent is asked when they reach out about seeing a doctor or therapist.

“The first step is also one of the barriers,” Lindsey says, pointing out that access to many mental health care providers depends on the patient’s type of insurance. It’s a major concern, especially since undertreatment and inadequate treatment of mental illness is another significant barrier. “Or, if they don’t have insurance at all, they’re not going to even attempt to seek out services.”

The financial barriers to mental health care can’t be understated.

“We really need to make sure that insurance coverage for (mental health) is equal to that of general health,” Lindsey says. The same goes for personal opinions about mental health versus physical health. “It’s absolutely not looked at the same way,” she says.

While some organizations offer programs for people who are uninsured, even those who have health insurance may find that their deductibles or copays make therapy unaffordable. In either case, families should know that help is available.

“We would never turn anybody away,” Lindsey says. “What we can do is we can help people if they don’t have insurance to meet with a case manager and get linked into a program where they can help them with the resources.”

As parents make their way through the sometimes-winding maze of the mental health system and work to overcome the common barriers, they should remember to trust their instincts.

“You always want to go with your gut with anything,” Lindsey says.

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