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Better conversation about children’s mental health

For the past 16 years, my husband and I have interacted with numerous child-serving systems as both professionals and consumers…. medical, education, foster care and adoption. So when our family was thrust into the midst of the Idaho mental health system three years ago, we thought we were prepared to navigate the challenging waters that lay ahead. But no amount of experience could have equipped us for our journey through a fragmented and, often, dysfunctional system.

During the course of our journey, we have experienced almost every aspect of the mental health system. We’ve seen gaps in services and shortages in providers. We’ve walked through programs with well-intended philosophies that in reality leave families feeling hopeless. We’ve fought, like many other parents, to get our child the help she needs in a system that is struggling.

But in the midst of this system, there are those who believe Idaho can and should do better for our children and families. Over the past two years the mental health community has seen two major changes: regional mental health boards and substance use disorder boards were combined into regional behavioral health boards; and Medicaid contracted with Optum Idaho, a managed care company, to administer out-patient behavioral health funds. These are large system-wide transformations that, while needed, have not been without their challenges.

One example is Optum’s effort to support and expand the use of evidence-based practices in the treatment of mental health. This has involved transitioning patients and families towards services that research demonstrates result in the best possible outcomes for a particular diagnosis. This transition is crucial in moving Idaho’s mental health system forward because it promotes efficient use of public funds and encourages diagnosis-specific treatment services.

However, this change has uncovered gaps in the system, specifically the lack of respite and support services for families. In a fragmented system, gaps such as these are problematic because they often cannot be corrected by the agency that uncovered them. This creates frustration for parents, providers, and advocates, often causing us to engage in conversations that focus on failures, place blame and create hostility.

I believe that there is a better conversation that we can have during these times of change. I believe that we can address the gaps in the system without placing blame or resisting progress. I believe that we can use our different perspectives and experiences to reach a common goal of improving the lives of children and families across the state. I believe that we can use past mistakes to inform our decisions as we move forward, keeping our focus on a more hopeful future.

Getting parents and advocates involved in these conversations is part of improving the system. Parents can participate by sharing their stories, becoming educated on evidence-based treatments for their child’s diagnosis, and advocating in a positive way for supports and services to fill in gaps. Mental health advocates are crucial in bridging the gap between families and providers during these conversations. When looking at challenges in the midst of a changing system, advocates should talk to multiple providers, parents, and the decision-makers within the system in an effort to fully understand the situation. It is possible to keep the conversation focused on a hopeful future, even while addressing current challenges and frustrations.

We have an opportunity to transform the mental health system for children. Working together we can provide parents and families access to an efficient, responsive mental health system…a system that meets them in the midst of their hardest moments, but provides real hope for a brighter future. And that is a better conversation.

Here are possible resources for more information:

Optum Idaho (

Idaho Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (

Idaho Parents Unlimited (

Child Mind ( not an Idaho specific site, but a great resource for parents wanting information on evidence-based treatment

Regional board and state planning council through the IDHW website (

Jennifer Griffis, Grangeville, ( is a parent advocate for mental health issues at the regional and state levels.


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