CHAPEL HILL, NC – The COVID-19 pandemic has turned an existing child and adolescent behavioral health crisis into an overwhelming epidemic affecting families across the nation, and especially in North Carolina. To address this urgent need, leaders in the UNC Department of Psychiatry are leading a pilot program funded in part by a $1.97 million grant from the SECU Foundation to the UNC Health Foundation.
The program, led by Nate Sowa, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC Department of Psychiatry and director of Virtual Care and Integrated Behavioral Health, will work with a diverse group of key stakeholders in the state to implement a public school-based telemedicine service that provides access to behavioral health care in communities that previously had little or none.
“North Carolina ranks near the bottom of the country in behavioral health treatment access for children, with the greatest limitations seen in more rural parts of the state,” Sowa said. “There are around 200 child psychiatrists in North Carolina, and they are clustered in 31 out of our 100 counties. This program is aimed at delivering care to kids and teens that might not have otherwise had access to it.”
To reach underserved communities, the highly innovative pilot program will collaborate with local school districts and community partners to identify needs and build relationships to reduce barriers to accessing behavioral health psychiatric care using telemedicine. This would create a system in which children identified by themselves, their caregivers or school staff will be ushered into a virtual care program designed to reach them by bypassing barriers they may have to traditional care models.
“Not every parent is able to take time off work to get their child to a doctor’s appointment,” said Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, MPH, Assad Meymandi Distinguished Professor and chair of the UNC Department of Psychiatry. “We also know that even with the major advances in virtual health that have been made during the pandemic, there are still inequities in terms of access to high speed internet and technology at home. Providing this virtual care at school creates a more equitable care system.”
The pilot program will start at two yet-to-be-determined sites representing rural and urban regions of the state. UNC and its partners will create dialogues and partnerships with key stakeholders to build a roadmap for long-term scalability, adaptability and sustainability in all 100 North Carolina counties. The program will incorporate the expertise of leading child and adolescent psychiatrists from UNC-Chapel Hill to guide implementation, provide direct care to children and families, consult with educators, and provide consultation and integration with local primary care providers.
“Education and healthcare leaders are seeing firsthand the increase in behavioral health issues among North Carolina students and the critical need for innovative mental health programs,” said Jama Campbell, executive director of the SECU Foundation. “While COVID-19 has had devastating impacts in our communities and state, it has also been a catalyst for positive change and creative ways to address healthcare. We are proud to support a pilot program of this magnitude and applaud UNC Health Foundation and all those involved in making sure North Carolina’s school system has the tools to provide children with the help and care they need.”
By addressing behavioral health, we can improve student health and wellness, decrease absenteeism, and improve academic achievement. Care delivered through behavioral health therapists in the program will not only improve the emotional and physical health of youth, but also reduce stress and anxiety amongst families and caregivers.
“This innovative project increases access to high quality care and promotes greater health equity – two primary goals of UNC Health. We are proud to partner with the SECU Foundation and grateful for their investment in the mental and behavioral health of children in our state,” said Wesley Burks, MD, CEO of UNC Health and Dean of the UNC School of Medicine.
The program involves a three-year development and implementation plan broken up into four phases. Phase one – identifying and coordinating with key stakeholders – is underway and will take place over the next nine months. Other organizations involved in this collaboration include the North Carolina Healthcare Association, Novant Health, BAND-NC, ECU Physicians, ECU Brody School of Medicine, and the Health Center for Rural Health Innovation.