The boy was a model student—well-behaved and high-achieving. But his teacher noticed something was off; he seemed distressed. She referred him to the school’s therapist who discovered he had been depressed for two years and had a detailed suicide plan he intended to carry out in the coming days.
The therapist—a licensed professional counselor (LPC) working at the school as part of a behavioral health program managed by Driscoll Children’s Hospital—contacted the boy’s parents and referred him to inpatient behavioral health care. If not for the hospital’s school-based program, the child may have ended up in the emergency room or worse.
“We're missing opportunities to help more children if we don't move upstream and provide resources for families and kids before they reach crisis,” says Mary Dale Peterson, M.D., executive vice president and chief operating officer at Driscoll Health System in Corpus Christi, Texas.
To help kids before a crisis occurs, Driscoll has implemented several initiatives to provide timely behavioral health services and train others to recognize symptoms early.
In February 2022, the hospital dedicated six LPCs to schools in its community, with plans to recruit more. Driscoll also offers telehealth services to schools without LPCs, but Peterson says kids have shown more interest in seeing a provider in person. Shortly after the program went live in one high school, the LPC received 82 referrals in a month, compared to just two for behavioral telehealth services.
Primary care integration
Driscoll Health Plan launched a three-year pilot program to fund behavioral health professionals in primary care offices across its region. Having a mental health professional as a part of the health care team ensures better outcomes for patients. And Peterson says pediatricians have welcomed the help, having been overwhelmed in recent years with the number of patients with behavioral health concerns.
“There's a difference between co-locating and having an integrated practice,” Peterson says. “Our role is to help develop an integrated practice so there is communication between the mental health professional and the primary care physician. It’s a close relationship.”
Peterson adds that integrating behavioral health professionals into pediatric clinics has improved access to care for as many as 30,000 children in the community.
Driscoll has implemented depression screening in all health clinics across its system. Children or adolescents who screen positively are given a full behavioral health assessment and the care team arranges for the appropriate follow-up treatment.
Driscoll is training the people closest to children—primarily, teachers and parents—how to recognize early signs of behavioral health issues and intervene with the help they need.
Using the evidence-based content of Triple P (Positive Parenting Program), the hospital offers in-person seminars and on-demand videos on topics ranging from everyday issues to more serious behavioral concerns. To date, more than 1,000 participants have completed the Triple P training through Driscoll.
Peterson says the training is integral to helping parents raise happy, healthy children. “I've had a lot of jobs—I'm a physician, I've practiced pediatric anesthesia and critical care medicine, and now I’m the chief operating officer of a health system. I still think the hardest job I've ever had in my life is being a parent of three boys,” Peterson says. “There's no instruction manual, no special training. Now you add into the mix the negative influences of social media, sleep deprivation, poor diets—all these things affect the brain. What we’re trying to do is give parents the tools they need to do this job.”