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NCDHHS launches child behavioral dashboard, reflects mental health data in children

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DTH photo illustration.

On Feb. 6, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services introduced the Child Behavioral Health dashboard — a publicly available tool designed to provide data and analysis on behavioral health services for children in North Carolina.

The dashboard monitors three primary indicators among 5 to 18-year-old, Medicaid-insured children in North Carolina.

The behavioral health indicator shows the percentages of children diagnosed with depression, ADHD and substance use disorder. The utilization indicator tracks metrics of emergency departments, mobile crisis services and psychiatric residential treatment facilities.

Additionally, the risk indicator provides survey data on children's self-esteem, sadness and hopelessness, along with statistics on babies born with low birth weights — all considered risk factors for ADHD, depression and other health issues later in life.

The dashboard also factors in geography, race, ethnicity, age and gender. Hanaleah Hoberman, the director of child and family strategic initiatives at the NCDHHS, said these factors help stakeholders identify and address gaps and disparities in health care.

“We know that different communities are affected differently by behavioral health challenges [and] have different levels of access to behavioral health services,” Hoberman said. “It's important for us and our partners to be able to inform our work off of the means of access and different experiences.”

According to the dashboard, 33,902 children were diagnosed with clinical depression in 2022. Of that number, 5,183 were from the Research Triangle Park area, including Wake, Durham and Orange counties.

Jameca Cotton, a school counselor at River Park Elementary in Hillsborough, said that while school counselors have limited availability, the dashboard could help students find temporary resources.

“Sometimes we are backed up on school-based therapy,” Cotton said. “So, sometimes we kind of need other strategies and solutions to figure out plans until we are able to support our students.”

Cotton said many of her students struggle with identity and lack social skills, sometimes showing signs of depression. She also said her students have a hard time expressing how they feel and pinpointing their emotions.

Jim Bedford, a child and adolescent psychiatrist for the UNC Department of Psychiatry and the UNC Youth Behavioral Health Hospital, said North Carolina is in dire need for more mental health care availability across the state, particularly in rural areas.

“We were seeing children coming to the emergency room in crisis and not being able to get care in a timely manner,” Bedford said. “Children were getting stuck there for days or even weeks at a time, waiting for mental health treatment.”

Bedford said recent data shows emergency room visits for suicide attempts have increased over the past few years. According to the NCDHHS, suicide is North Carolina’s second leading cause of death for youth aged 10-18.

North Carolina is 42nd out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in the 'The State of Mental Health' rankings made by Mental Health America, a nonprofit that advocates for mental health awareness. The state's position in the rankings indicates a higher prevalence of mental illness and a lower rate of health care access for children.

“We're really concerned about the rise in data around youth depression and the implications for young people who don't get the help that they need,” Hoberman said. “A key piece of improving access to services is having meaningful data to inform our decisions.”

Hoberman said the dashboard was a high-priority project for the NCDHHS and the first step in a long-term project yet to come.  She said while the dashboard is part of a larger focus the NCDHHS has on child behavioral health, it does not have all the answers.

“It provides answers to things like, ‘What percent of kids are using this service,’” Hoberman said. “It doesn't tell us what we can do to change it and so by seeing the questions that it raises, it'll help us find the answers to those questions.”

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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