New program provides doctors more training, education on mental health for kids in Nebraska

Omaha’s Children’s Hospital has partnered with the REACH institute to help rural healthcare providers treat kids with mental health struggles.
A new mental health program started by Children's Hospital aims to bolster mental health resources for children and those in rural areas.
Published: Jun. 20, 2023 at 10:02 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Michael Havekost has been a doctor for decades, and in his primary care practice in downtown Beatrice, Havekost sees a little bit of everything, including mental health struggles.

“Pediatric cases of depression and anxiety have really increased since the pandemic, and of course, there’s the attention deficit hyperactive disorder.”

In rural communities like his, doctors who specialize in mental healthcare are rare.

“A lot of our primary care colleagues are in the trenches, on the front lines taking care of these kids but have had limited training in mental healthcare,” says Dr. Jennifer McWilliams.

McWilliams is the division chief for psychiatry at Omaha’s Children’s Hospital.

“We know that 90 of the 93 counties in Nebraska are found to be in mental healthcare shortage areas, and a third of those counties don’t have mental healthcare providers at all,” she says.

McWilliams is also the medical director of the new COPE program: Children’s Outreach Physician Education.

It’s a program that offers an intense three-day training course for primary care doctors across the state, giving them more knowledge and skills in order to treat kids with mild to moderate mental health concerns.

The first training was held in May, and 45 providers from both rural and urban parts of the state joined Children’s Hospital and the REACH Institute to expand their knowledge.

“A lot of kids don’t need medicine, they need therapy, they need mentors, they need different resources that are going to be in their communities, so helping primary care providers navigate that and find the best resources for kids in North Platte, Kearney, where they are instead of having to come all the way to Omaha and Lincoln,” McWilliams says.

Havekost was one of those first 45 to participate in the program, and before now, if a child with a mental health concern came into his office, he likely would have referred them to someone else due to lack of time and resources.

But not anymore.

“This gave us the opportunity to be able to evaluate kids for mental health problems and then take a step and start treating them in the process,” he says.

“There is a tremendous number of children needing care and if it’s not going to be done in a smaller community where they can get care quickly and effectively, then they have to travel hours to get into somebody maybe three or four months later.”

The new program offers providers a consultation and resource identification program, too - places they can go to ask questions and get recommendations about the best course of action for kids who come into their offices with mental health issues.

“This is not trying to train your pediatrician to become a psychiatrist, it’s kind of the core, common things that affect kids - ADHD, depression, anxiety, aggression, and behavior issues are kind of the four big categories they cover,” McWilliams adds.

Havekost says the training makes a major difference, and it’s a big step toward combatting mental health struggles before they intensify, especially in rural communities.

“Probably two or three [patients] a month we see that we could say ‘hmm I wonder what’s going on here’ and now we have the tools to start that evaluation process with the help of the parents to try to help figure things out and help their child get doing better,” he adds.

Children’s Hospital and the REACH Institute are already in the planning process for the next training session, which will take place this coming October.