Georgia’s System of Care Aims to Improve Children’s Behavioral Health
By Melissa Haberlen, Senior Research Associate, and Ann DiGirolamo, Director of Behavioral Health, Georgia Health Policy Center
Mental health and substance use disorders in children and adolescents contribute to disparities with health and well-being, educational attainment, and involvement with the criminal justice system. In adults, mental illness and substance use disorders have been tied to work productivity and employability concerns, poor health and even a shorter lifespan.
Behavioral health disorders are widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 to 20 percent of children in the United States experience a mental health disorder each year, and about half of all Americans are diagnosed with a mental illness during their lifetime.
The situation is no different in Georgia. In 2016, suicide was the second leading cause of death in Georgia for children ages 10- to 17-years-old and for young adults ages 25- to 34-years-old. In 2017, 1,455 Georgians died of a drug overdose. By intervening early in children’s behavioral health, children are provided with a greater opportunity to thrive and develop into healthy, productive adults. This is the mission of Georgia’s Interagency Directors Team (IDT).
The IDT, Georgia’s multiagency children’s behavioral health collaborative, shatters the notion of siloed government agencies and fear of upstream interventions among policy makers.
The IDT is a workgroup of the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, which is administratively attached to the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The workgroup is composed of more than 30 members, including directors from child-serving state agencies, providers, advocates, university partners, and family and youth with lived experience.
One of the IDT’s primary goals is to enable Georgia’s children and youth with behavioral health needs to lead productive lives, and grow up to be healthy adults who are stable, employed and a part of their community.
The IDT’s work is grounded in the System of Care philosophy, which promotes community-based, culturally competent, and family- and person-centered services and support. The IDT uses a collective impact model to guide its strategic work, with support from the Center of Excellence for Children’s Behavioral Health at Georgia State University.
To guide efforts in a deliberate, accountable manner, in 2017 the IDT released its comprehensive three-year System of Care State Plan, a strategic roadmap for improving Georgia’s child and adolescent behavioral health system. The plan aligns strategies and action items in five key areas: access, coordination, workforce development, funding and evaluation.
In its first year of implementation, the IDT completed work on 12 of its strategic goals, including mapping the state’s tele-behavioral health capacity, adding new children’s behavioral health services to the Medicaid benefits package, identifying opportunities for cross-agency workforce training in key areas (such as trauma and suicide prevention) and creating new resources to help families and youth better navigate the behavioral health system.
The IDT is implementing the second year of the plan, significantly building upon progress during the first year.
Key components of the System of Care State Plan were supported by the recommendations of the Governor’s Commission on Children’s Mental Health, which resulted in an unprecedented $20 million in funding for children’s mental health services for state fiscal year 2019.
With a substantial investment from the governor, strong commitment from state leaders, a strategic state plan and concerted effort from public and private organizations, 2019 is the year for Georgia to move the needle on children’s behavioral health and secure a healthy, productive workforce for Georgia’s future.
Ann DiGirolamo is director of behavioral health at the Georgia Health Policy Center and director of the Center of Excellence for Children’s Behavioral Health, which provides support to the IDT.