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Bridging the treatment gap: Solutions for families waiting to connect a teen with a therapist



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Worsening mental health among teenagers prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to declare a national emergency.

Mental health concerns among adolescents saw a steady rise between 2010 and 2020 – and the pandemic only intensified the crisis.

A year into the pandemic, the Huntsman Mental Health Institute found that 40% of Utahns saw an increase in anxiety and depression with 8 out of 10 children reporting those very symptoms.

The average wait for a mental health care provider for a new patient referral in Utah is between two to six months. But experts say there are tools available to help bridge the treatment gap.

Waiting months for care

Monica Lopez and her 12-year-old daughter Valentina know that wait all too well. They started their search for a therapist in January. The first available appointment was in April.

"Valentina expresses herself very well and at one point she stopped expressing herself," Monica Lopez said. "I could just tell something wasn't right. She even started to look different, she became more pale and she didn't eat as much."

Lopez said she recognized the same signs of depression she saw in her daughter four years earlier.

"We had some heartbreaks in our lives and especially with her dad leaving her home at an early age," she said.

That event took a toll on Valentina's mental health and at just 8 years old she got professional help.

"I was angry a lot of that time," Valentina said. "After two months of therapy, I got a lot more happy."

Lopez felt that short stint of therapy worked for her daughter, who started smiling, laughing, and enjoying life again. But that all changed two years later when the pandemic hit.

"She couldn't go out she couldn't hang out with her friends that much so that literally took a hit for all of us," Lopez said.

Valentina began to isolate and disassociate. She felt that no one around her could understand what she was going through, including her family.

Jessica Holzbauer, a licensed clinical social worker with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, says there a same-day option for mental health treatment.
Jessica Holzbauer, a licensed clinical social worker with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, says there a same-day option for mental health treatment. (Photo: Josh Syzmanik, KSL-TV)

"It's just hard when they ask, 'Are you okay' and I'm not but I can't explain why I'm not," she said.

Lopez asked Valentina the difficult question: Are you suicidal?

"I was shocked," Valentina said, "like, how does she know?"

The family did not waste time seeking help. Lopez saw an ad for a free mental health clinic for families and teenagers.

"I called them right away to make an appointment. But it took like three months to see the actual therapist," she said.

It was a frustrating time for Lopez as she watched her daughter sink deeper.

"She was feeling hopeless, and I was feeling hopeless too," Lopez said.

Immediate help is available

Jessica Holzbauer, a licensed clinical social worker with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute says what Lopez and her daughter experienced is standard right now.

"In general, we used to talk about waits being weeks. Now we talk about it being months," Holzbauer said. "People have not been able to get in to see an outpatient provider because they are slammed. They don't have openings. So there is a trickledown effect where then kids who need a higher level of care, are sicker than we've ever seen them before."

Holzbauer believes the children who got hit the hardest by the pandemic are those who had a predisposition for depression.

"Kids who struggled already with depression and whose go-to was to isolate or withdraw, that just exasperated the issue," Holzbauer said.

While the wait for a mental health care provider can be discouraging for parents, Holzbauer said there are resources available right now.

The most underutilized one is using a primary care physician to connect with a therapist.

"There are fantastic short-term therapists who are in community clinics who can see the adolescents or kids who are struggling," she said.

She also encourages parents to reach out to their child's school counselor.

In an emergency, reach out to a same-day clinic.

"We also have a same-day clinic where they can meet with a physician that day," Holzbauer said.

She also points to the SafeUT app where kids and teens can connect with a mental health counselor via text. The app provides immediate help in the palm of a child's hand, no wait required.

"Not many adolescents want to pick the phone and make a call, so [texting] is a great option," she said.

In 2021, there were 30,527 total chats and tips were received through the app and 298 life-saving interventions were initiated, said Holzbauer.

To combat the crisis, she said the institute is expanding resources with hiring and infrastructure.

"I am very hopeful that the wait it is going to get shorter," she said.

The institute will be opening the Crisis Care Center in South Salt Lake in 2024. The $47 million facility will have a wing dedicated to adolescent mental health. It is a facility where children like Valentina would benefit.

Although the family had to wait for care, they're glad they got Valentina life-saving treatment when they did.

Since starting weekly sessions with a therapist in April, Lopez said she has already seen an improvement in her daughter's mental health.

"I want Valentina to be happy. I want her to know that she can be successful, and she can be great in everything she does," she said.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis Hotlines

  • Huntsman Mental Health Institute Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • SafeUT Crisis Line: 833-372-3388
  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

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Salt Lake CountyUtahHome & Family
Ashley Moser
Ashley Moser joined KSL in January 2016. She co-anchors KSL 5 Live at 5 with Mike Headrick and reports for the KSL 5 News at 10.

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