Gov. Deal creates commission to improve children’s mental health programs

By David Pendered

Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday established a commission to evaluate Georgia’s approach to children’s mental health and recommend ways to improve it. The commission can pick up a study where a study completed in 2015 by a House committee left off.

children's mental health, bench

An estimated 15 million children nationwide live with a mental illness. Fewer than 80 percent receive treatment, according to Georgia reports. Credit: tamiyorkregion.ca

The new commission responds to Deal’s promise in his State of the State address in January that he would boost mental health services. The commission Deal created is specifically charged with addressing services that could be funded by Medicaid, according to a statement released by the governor’s office:

  • “The commission, comprised of health care experts, state leaders and children’s advocates, will submit a report to Deal on Sept. 1 that identifies potential improvements to state Medicaid services, as well as ways to increase access to care for uninsured children.”

Deal said the commission is styled after several others, including one that called for early diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues:

  • “[T[he Child Welfare Reform Council’s advocacy on the importance of early examination and treatment resulted in changes to mental health coverage for Medicaid and PeachCare members. This year, my budget included an additional $2.5 million to provide mental health services to the full population of children from birth to age 5.”
mental health specialists

Many counties in Georgia have scarce resources to help children with mental health issues. Credit: Georgia House committee report

The governor’s executive order outlines the commission’s scope of work as:

  • “The Commission on Children’s Mental Health is hereby created to evaluate Georgia’s approach to children’s mental health and research appropriate future actions for the state in addressing children’s mental health concerns.”

The commission’s membership includes:

  • Co-Chairwoman Katie Childers, Governor’s deputy chief of staff of policy;
  • Co-Chairwoman Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald, Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities;
  • Commissioner Frank Berry, Department of Community Health;
  • Director Bobby Cagle, Department of Family and Child Services;
  • Director Teresa MacCartney, Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget and the state’s chief financial officer;
  • Stephanie Blank, Founding Chairwoman, Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students;
  • Erica Fener Sitkoff, Policy and Outreach Director, Voices for Georgia’s Children;
  • Jordan Greenbaum, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

A Georgia House study committee reported in 2015 that Georgia has a shortage of trained mental health professionals to help children with mental issues. Credit: georgiareading.org

The House Study Committee on Children’s Mental Health plowed similar ground in 2015. House Resolution 641 charged the committee to study conditions related to:

  • “[T]he issue of available resources for children with mental health issues in this state and identify possible solutions or improvements in the delivery of services, particularly concerning early intervention and prevention services.”

The committee’s report delivered 16 recommendations. Many focused on additional training and materials for adults who could deliver mental health services to children; adding child psychiatric training to medical school rotations; and offering loan forgiveness programs for students studying child psychiatry who agree to treat Georgia children for three years.

The latter recommendation may have stemmed from the committee’s discovery of a shortage of qualified individuals to work with children who have mental issues.

The ratio of school nurses to students is 1 to 1,093.

The ratio of school counselors to students is 1 to 500.

The ratio of school psychologists to students is 1 to 2,475.

The ratio of school social workers to students is 1 to 2,742.

In Georgia, six child psychiatrists are graduated from college every year.

The ratio of psychiatrists to children is 1 to 2,380.

The ratio of psychologists to children is 1 to 781.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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