It’s no secret that the pandemic caused a lot of stress and children were not immune.
Hygienists at East Valley Community Dental Clinics noticed the problem last year and so teamed up with Southwest Health and Behavioral Services to address it.
The Chandler and Gilbert children’s dental clinics screen patients from low-income families to see if they might benefit from counseling with mental health professionals.
“The reason this collaboration is starting is because we started seeing kids with health issues, mental health issues, that we were like, ‘we have to do something about this,'” said Diana Westphal, Community Oral Health Dental Clinic Supervisor for Dignity Health, which operates the two East Valley clinics.
She said one of the reasons this partnership makes sense is that the financial burden is a barrier that prevents low-income families from seeking help.
Becky Grudowski, program director at Southwest Behavioral and Health Services, said she received a grant to pay for mental health services for up to 10 children.
So far, about 30 children have been referred to mental health counselors for further screening since the program began in February. Grudowski said many of them did not need professional advice and always had funds.
When a child from a low-income family comes to one of the two clinics for dental care, he is screened. Parents of children under the age of 12 are asked to answer the questions to determine if further screening is necessary.
Children 12 and older complete their own screening form.
“And then we look at that, depending on what we see, we might ask a follow-up question or two to clarify,” said Sharon Gilloon, one of Dignity Health’s dental hygienists. “And then we’ll pass that on, we’ll explain to them what would happen next, whether they’ve indicated here that they want guidance or whether they’ve indicated certain areas that they’ve trained us to look at as critical areas. “
Each hygienist received approximately four hours of training to help them screen the children they treat. Grudowski said there have always been children who have mental health issues.
“It’s something that’s always been prevalent, but yeah, I’d say the pandemic has increased mental health issues in teens and young people by 100%, especially things like anxiety, depression and self-harming behaviors,” Grudowski said. “We’ve seen an increase in these issues.”
Both parties say the partnership has worked well so far.
“We started to see signs that created an awareness in our team, like, we have to do something to help these families,” Westphal said. “That’s how the idea was born, where we started looking for resources and navigating the system. And we learned that it was difficult to navigate the system to begin with.
Gilloo said she believes they are helping children who otherwise wouldn’t get the help they need.
“Honestly, I feel privileged to be able to offer certain services to children,” she said. “I feel like it’s really necessary, and the earlier the better in an individual’s life. They can learn certain skills to deal with some of the things we see.