In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School and Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting, a Texas telepsychiatry program was launched to help schoolchildren and teens deal with potential mental health issues that could lead to later violence or suicide. School violence may get all the attention, but suicide is the second most common cause of death among American teenagers. Both situations often stem from untreated mental or behavioral health issues among children and teenagers. In the years since those shootings, at-risk students at these Texas schools have received the psychiatric care they need and, in some cases, have even been removed from the school setting amidst safety concerns.
Currently, the US has a shortage of child psychiatrists—only 8,300 available to treat about 15 million children. “The shortage means some of the most vulnerable children in our country will go without help,” explained Jack Turban, MD, a resident child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, in a June 2017 article in Psychology Today. “Only one-third to one-half of children who need mental healthcare have access. The situation is only projected to get worse.”
The Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage and Referral (TWITR) project, spearheaded by Texas Tech University Health Science Center (TTUHSC), encompasses 11 school districts in the Lubbock area. Over the last few years, 34,000 middle and high school students have been seen, 10 percent of whom have received counseling as a result of these visits. Some of the students using the program might not have access to such care without the program.
Through the program, students are screened for at-risk behaviors in schools. If they meet certain requirements, they receive two telepsychiatry sessions. Anyone who needs further care is referred to the TTUHSC Psychiatry Clinic. Previously, students were referred from schools directly to the psychiatrist’s office, further exacerbating the physician shortage. The telemedicine program has allowed physicians to assess more patients in less time and at lower cost—without the hassle of parents taking time off work to drive students to the psychiatrist’s office.
According to program officials, the TWITR program has reduced the number of referrals to the clinic by 37 percent; they could not have screened thousands of children without telemedicine.
To learn more about the TWITR program, visit mHealthIntelligence here.