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Two Palm Beach providers integrate mental health services into primary pediatric care

Center for Child Counseling CEO Renée Layman and Palm Beach Pediatrics and Dr. Shannon Fox-Levine with PBP Practice Administrator Kimberly Brennan and CFCC Chief Program Officer Lauren Scirrotto.
Center for Child Counseling CEO Renee Layman (far left) and Palm Beach Pediatrics president Dr. Shannon Fox-Levine (far right) discuss their pediatric integration partnership with Palm Beach Pediaatrics practice administrator Kimberly Brennan and the center's chief program officer Lauren Scirrotto.

The Center for Child Counseling and Palm Beach Pediatrics are working together to blend mental health services into primary pediatric care.

A pediatric practice and a counseling center in Palm Beach County are teaming up to make sure their patients are physically and mentally healthy. That's especially important now, as the pandemic has worsened stress and anxiety for many children.

“As mental health professionals, we can’t do it all," said Renee Layman, CEO and president of the Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach Gardens. “We also know that we don’t have to wait for a child to fall apart and have a mental health diagnosis before we do something."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's been a spike in children showing up at emergency rooms because of a mental health crisis. Layman says integrating mental health services into pediatrics, schools and child care centers is an “early intervention strategy that is more important than ever.”

Layman says due to a critical staffing shortage across health care and mental health services, she has partnered with Palm Beach County Youth Services to have co-located behavioral health professionals who can handle early prevention needs and provide necessary specializations.

She is also working with Palm Beach Pediatrics on a new strategy designed to get kids the help they need before a mental health issue becomes an emergency.

Dr. Shannon Fox-Levine, president of Palm Beach Pediatrics, said there were issues brewing before the pandemic shutdown.

“The epidemic was before the pandemic. We had already been seeing a lot of anxiety and depression, and being able to try to manage that has been overwhelming for a pediatric practice,” Fox-Levine said.

Fox-Levine said the new care coordination strategy can help fill an information gap for patient care situations that are beyond her expertise.

“Recently, I [had] a teenager who had been struggling with diagnosable anxiety and depression through the pandemic. It presented mostly symptomatic through the pandemic, but even looking back, he had probably struggled,” said Fox-Levine. “And as we developed a relationship, he [revealed] to me that he is struggling with his gender identity. And that's where we struggle as a primary care medical facility is, 'How do we get this person with this particular insurance to someone who we think is going to get high quality care to help him get through something that he's struggling with?' ”

During the pandemic, Fox-Levine said she has seen more of her patients experiencing stress, anxiety or depression.

“We actually have about a 10 percent rate right now of diagnoses of anxiety and depression amongst our 20,000 patients, so that's 2,000 kids that we're managing right now. Some of them were before the pandemic,” said Fox-Levine. “There are definitely those kids that have been diagnosed in this past year and a half.”

She said the 10 percent doesn’t even include patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“While the pandemic may have increased numbers transiently last year, I do not believe it to be much higher, currently, than two years ago with everyone returning to school,” Fox-Levine said.

Incorporating mental health care into her patients' regular treatment allows health professionals to add nuance to the numbers. She said many of the children during the pandemic who were initially diagnosed with anxiety or depression turned out to be mere stress-related issues in response to the pandemic environment.

“And with just the support that we've been able to give them, whether it be with counseling and/or medication, a lot of them have improved,” she said.”

Fox-Levine partnered with Renée Layman because her primary care facility had difficulty credentialing their own licensed mental health counselors.

“We have a psychologist, we have a psychiatric nurse practitioner in our practice. But getting the insurance plans to allow us to credential the mental health professionals has been a major barrier," Fox-Levine said.

She called the situation “urgent” and that she was unwilling to wait for insurance plans to meet the demands and Layman had the resources at their fingertips.

Some of her patients will be able to access the newly available mental health services within the next few weeks.

“So even if they themselves don't have that therapist to address my patient with gender [identity] needs, they have somebody that they trust that they can send them to,” said Fox-Levine. “And so we joined Renee in trying to figure out how we can kind of help one another help the children.”

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Wilkine Brutus is a multimedia journalist for WLRN, South Florida's NPR, and a member of Washington Post/Poynter Institute’ s 2019 Leadership Academy. A former Digital Reporter for The Palm Beach Post, Brutus produces enterprise stories on topics surrounding people, community innovation, entrepreneurship, art, culture, and current affairs.