Pediatrician Calls Focus on Children's Mental Health a ‘Wake-Up’ Call
Brad Mercer, M.D., remembers a time when most pediatricians didn’t understand a child’s mental health was just as important as their physical well-being.
When he began his practice 23 years ago, Dr. Mercer saw the occasional ADHD patient out of necessity. But he rarely treated a child’s anxiety, depression or mood disorder.
Because of a national shortage of child psychiatrist and psychologists, pediatricians are being asked to take on more responsibility of looking at a child’s mental health. It’s a challenge that Dr. Mercer welcomes.
“Twenty years ago, most pediatricians referred those kids to a psychiatrist or psychologist,” Dr. Mercer said. "Today, 10 to 20 percent of my day is dedicated to treatment of those conditions. I had to step out of my comfort zone to help these kids and their families because the system has become overwhelmed and there aren’t enough mental health providers out there to take them all. I had to learn more and become better educated myself to help these kids. So, we pediatricians must now step up to meet this demand. I can tell you that at Cook Children’s Forest Park, we are very concerned about our patient’s mental health and we will ask the children we see about their symptoms. We’ll do our best to help with treatment and support. We want your children to grow up happy and well-adjusted and to live in an environment where they can feel safe.”
In any given year, 13 to 20 percent of kids have a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
But only about 20 percent of those with mental, emotional or behavioral disorders receive care from a specialized mental health provider.
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more Americans in every age group, from 10 to 75, are died by suicide. And the journal Pediatrics published an article that hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts and attempts double from 2008 to 2015 in the United States.
Dr. Mercer calls the recent focus on mental health a “wake-up call” to American pediatricians and family practitioners who treat kids, especially adolescents.
“We must address the mental health problems in our youth as a preventive measure,” Dr. Mercer said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 1 in 5 American children ages 3 through 17, about 15 million children, have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year. Most of these children, about 80 percent or 12 million kids, are not identified and don’t receive treatment.
Suicide is the No. 2 cause of death for teens and it is steadily becoming more common. The rise of online bullying, family and school stresses, emotional or physical trauma, and substance abuse are among the factors contributing to this problem. But Dr. Mercer believes so is constant exposure to media and the conflicting messages it presents, unrealistic societal expectations, and a basic shift in parenting styles that never allow a child to fail at even simple situations. He believes this prevents a child from learning disappointment.
“It’s scary and sad. We are losing too many of our children to treatable conditions,” Dr. Mercer said. “And, society is at greater risk for actions sometimes taken by these individuals when their depression becomes homicidal.”
So what are we to do about it? Dr. Mercer agrees with experts at the U.S. Preventative Service Task Force and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who recommend all children age 12 and up be screened for depression during visits with their doctor.
“As pediatricians, we have to take the time to interact with teens and take the time to screen for these conditions during regular office visits,” Dr. Mercer said.
He adds parents also need to be on the lookout for signs that their child could have depression. For younger children, it often presents as excessive emotional outbursts, low self-esteem, extreme separation anxiety, or nightmares.
Often it is hard to tell if a teenager is depressed. Teens don’t often look sad, instead, they are irritable. It is important to take notice if your teen is experiencing moodiness or irritability for more than 2 weeks and it’s occurring every day, for most of the day. It is especially worrisome if it is associated with a change in sleep patterns, academic success, or the desire to socialize.
While it may have taken some doctors time to treat these conditions which cost children, families, and society so dearly, Dr. Mercer hopes pediatricians are getting better at bringing up the subject with their young patients.
“I think right now the medical community as a whole, we have to do a better job of being prepared, trained, and effective at getting our kids and families to open up about emotional problems,” Dr. Mercer said. “But we must do it and we must get better at it, and I think we have gotten better at it.”
Because we are part of the Cook Children's Health System, we are also uniquely positioned to care for those children coping with mental health as well as chronic physical conditions or diagnoses. Click here to learn more about our Behavioral Health Center at Cook Children's.
Our licensed experts provide psychology and psychiatry services for families whose children and adolescents, ages 2 to 18, are experiencing behavioral, neurodevelopmental and emotional challenges such as depression and anxiety to attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders.
Depending on the severity of a child's condition, we provide inpatient and partial hospitalization programs on the main campus of Cook Children's Medical Center and outpatient services in eight clinic settings across Tarrant and Denton counties.
Our services include:
- Diagnostic testing and evaluation
- Outpatient therapy and counseling
- Inpatient and partial hospitalization programs
- Medication management
- Family support group
To access any of our services, please contact our Intake Department by calling 682-885-3917. To expedite your call, please have your child's date of birth and insurance information ready. To find a location, click here.
- Pediatricians Urge Screening for depression at Well-Child Visits
- New Behavioral Health Center Offers Hope for Children In Crisis
- Dealing with Depression
- 7 Signs Your Child May Need Mental Health Help
- 13 Reasons Why You Should Be Concerned Your Child May Attempt Suicide
- Suicide of Elementary School-Aged Children and Adolescents
- 13 Warning Signs of Teen Suicide
- Is Your Teen's Smart Phone Making Them Depressed?
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. Talk to your doctor or pediatrician. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
Get to know Bradley Mercer, M.D.
Dr. Brad Mercer is pediatrician at Cook Children's Pediatrics (Fort Worth). He grew up in Fort Worth and attended Brewer High School. He earned his undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University and his medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. He completed his residency at Texas A&M/Scott and White Hospital in Temple, Texas. Dr. Mercer joined Cook Children's Physician Network and has been a board member for CCPN, Cook Children's Health Care System and Cook Children's Health Plan, as well as the Tarrant Country Academy of Medicine and Fort Worth Academy school board. Dr. Mercer and his wife have two high-school aged children. His hobbies include traveling, camping, hiking, cycling and running. To make an appointment, click here or call 817-592-8182.