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Arizona grapples with facets of equitable access to mental health services

Photo of Mental Health illustration for Arizona
Arizona ranked No. 44 in child well-being in this year’s edition of Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book, which also found a 26% increase in mental health problems among U.S. children from 2016-20. (File Photos/

Challenges to mental health access impact youth of Arizona

By Sophie Biazus | Special to the Digital Free Press

The shortage of mental health care professionals in Arizona is impacting the quality and availability of services provided to children and teenagers in crisis, advocates and health care professionals contend.

The challenges affect hospitals, the foster care system and public schools. John Brewer, vice president of behavioral health at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, reports the hospital’s biggest challenge in helping children experiencing mental health issues is the volume of patients seeking treatment.

“We don’t want kids to have to wait for an appointment longer than seven days,” he said.

Arizona ranked No. 44 in child well-being in this year’s edition of Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book, which also found a 26% increase in mental health problems among U.S. children from 2016-20. Arizona ranked among the 10 worst states for child well-being over the past five years, according to the data book.

When the COVID-19 global pandemic disrupted children’s lives and drastically changing how people communicate, the need for access has only increased, Mr. Brewer said. Government officials, hospital staff and nonprofits representatives are doing what they can to curb the crisis but need the community to use their vote and stand up for better policies and solutions.

Mental health access efforts afoot in Arizona

In April, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill into law to combat the shortage of individuals who can conduct psychiatric assessments on minors. Before the legislation, only psychologists, psychiatrists and physicians could conduct these assessments.

The state now recognizes psychiatrists and mental health nurse practitioners in the list of healthcare professionals who can provide outpatient or inpatient assessments. They can recommend treatment for children showing signs of mental illness or are a danger to themselves or others without impacting the state general fund, according to Arizona Senate research.

The Arizona Senate defined psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners as registered nurses who are required to be certified by the state Board of Nursing and complete an adult or family psychiatric and mental nurse practitioner program.

“The amount of people who are able to provide those services is not large enough, so anytime there’s an increased access is a good thing,” said Mr. Brewer.

Children in foster care are particularly vulnerable. The National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning reported that about 80% of children in foster show significant mental health issues.

Mr. Brewer says trust is a critical component when working with children. Kaye McCarthy, president of Arizonans for Children, thinks it is hard for kids in foster care to trust anyone.

She came out of retirement to start the nonprofit, which has been helping improve the lives of nearly 1 million abused, neglected and abandoned children in foster care from 2003 to August of this year, Ms. McCarthy says.

Additionally, she spotlighted their free mentor and tutor program that offers any child ages 5-18 in the state’s custody within Maricopa County a qualified, background-checked volunteer who provides the child with educational, emotional or life-skill training.

A volunteer, she says, “is a person who really wants to help and help directly with a child. They are matched with a child where we feel the mentor and the child will get along. It gives them contact with the outside world.”

The idea is to keep the volunteer with the child for at least one year so as to avoid somebody slipping in and out of the child’s life, McCarthy says. The volunteers help fill a void left by staff shortages. But even finding volunteers has been hard these days.

“There are children on the waiting list waiting to get a mentor. We just have an absolute crying need for volunteers and after COVID, the volunteer population has kind of tapered off, but now that COVID is less dangerous, we are hoping we can get these volunteers back,” she said.

A picturesque view of the Arizona capitol complex in downtown Phoenix. (File Photos/

Advocating in Arizona

David Lujan, who has worked in public policy for over 20 years, says the state has been in a crisis now for several years.

From the perspective of a nonprofit president and CEO, he says: “It hasn’t been a secret that we have the worst ratio in the country, yet we haven’t seen major steps. You know, we’ve seen some small incremental steps at the legislature, but nothing that I think rises to the level of where it should be.”

His organization, Children’s Action Alliance, is a nonprofit dedicated to bettering the lives of Arizonian children and families through fact-based partnerships and policy solutions and believes voting is the best way to promote mental health awareness.

Solutions emerging in Arizona

As a way to address the issue of access, Phoenix Children’s Hospital developed the Bridge Clinic, which provides children who come to the emergency department seeking treatment for mental health crises with a suitable community pediatric provider for long-term care.

The program reportedly has seen a decrease in return visits to the emergency department which Mr. Brewer believes sees as a good sign.

“We can see patients in a quicker manner,” he says. “It’s especially geared towards kids’ post-hospitalization. We know that within the first seven days of discharge is when kids are at the highest risk of a serious safety event occurring.”

Your Voice Matters in Arizona

Mr. Lujan says it’s important to remember we’re in an election season.

“Talk to candidates and see what their policy solutions are but also support candidates who are going to address it,” he says. “Vote for people that are going to make mental health a priority.”

If you are not registered to vote in Arizona, sign up here.

Call 988 to reach the national 24-hour crisis hotline if you or a loved one is experiencing a behavioral health crisis regardless of health insurance coverage.

Editor’s note: Ms. Biazus is a journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Communications at Arizona State University.

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