Children’s Minnesota moves to get kids mental health help faster

MINNEAPOLIS – May is Mental Health Awareness Month. One Minnesota health care system is bringing…

MINNEAPOLIS – May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

One Minnesota health care system is bringing in mental health experts to answer concerns during regular clinic visits.

“Even before the pandemic, year after year we were seeing more and more kids, 10% every year, kids seeking care in our emergency room, asking for mental health services. This has been the first year where we’ve seen a 30% increase,” said Dr. Gigi Chawla, vice president, chief of general pediatrics at Children’s Minnesota.

As the mental health crisis worsens in Minnesota, the shortage of mental health workers is taking an especially heavy toll on kids.

“That really is about a suicide attempt or suicide thoughts,” said Dr. Chawla.

Preventing those outcomes requires earlier intervention, which can be hard to find.

“Oftentimes in the community it can be months,” said Dr. Julie Erickson, clinical director of integrated behavioral health at Children’s Minnesota.

That led the children’s hospital system to expand their integrated behavioral health program into all nine primary care clinics this year.

“We really now have somebody on the frontlines that can step in to help intervene,” said Dr. Erickson.  



If there are mental health concerns brought up during a child’s pediatric visit, mental health experts can respond in real-time – ending often long waits.

“We can get that behavior health service started almost right away,” said Dr. Erickson.

The program provides short-term therapy at the primary clinic for kids and families of five to 10 sessions, focusing on symptom relief, including coping skills. If a child needs additional help, the behavior specialist assists in finding that care.

The pediatricians work hand in hand with the specialist.

“Looking for depression, looking for behavior concerns, looking for anxiety, and sometimes that’s the first time that parents have ever had that discussion with their child, and so it starts the conversation,” said Dr. Chawla.

A conversation that more families need to have. The 2022 Minnesota Student Survey found school-aged kids are experiencing more mental health issues than at any other time.

Twenty-nine percent of students reported long-term mental health problems (lasting six months or more). It’s a 6% jump from the 2019 survey and an 11% increase compared to 2016.

Knowing how teens are doing requires communication and closely monitoring day-to-day behavior.

“Have you seen any changes with their behavior? Are they not sleeping? Are they not eating? Do they seem withdrawn. All of those things are really at a point where you need to seek help, and then don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s really the most important thing,” said Dr. Chawla.