RCPA - Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association


Disparities in Mental Health Care for Children Noted Among States
October 27, 2003

Mental health programs serve a far greater share of children in some states than in others, but states with higher use of mental health services do not necessarily have a higher need for them, according to a RAND Corporation study. Using information about children in 13 states that represent a cross-section of the nation, researchers from RAND Health conducted the first large comparison of the use of mental health services and the need for mental health care among children in each state. The findings are described in an attached article by RAND Health economists.

Children's use of mental health care services differs more than twofold across states. Yet these differences in use are not necessarily paralleled by differences in need. Some states, such as Alabama and Texas, have high rates of need and low rates of use. In contrast, Washington state has a low level of need and a high level of use.

The table shows the percentages of children in the states who have received some type of mental health services and the percentage of children likely to benefit from mental health services, based on their caregivers' assessments:

Percent of children using mental health services
Percent of children needing mental health services
6.5 %
8.3 %
5.1 %
10 %
6.7 %
6.5 %
8.1 %
11.6 %
7.1 %
7.7 %
7.1 %
9.3 %
7.5 %
6.6 %
9.4 %
New Jersey
6.9 %
5.6 %
New York
8.1 %
6.7 %
5.7 %
7.9 %
8 %
5.9 %
8 %
7.9 %

Need and service use within a state may also be mismatched. In these cases, children most in need are not necessarily the ones using mental health services. Some states seem to be doing a better job of getting services to the children with the highest need, even if they have low overall rates of use of mental health services. For example, Alabama and Mississippi have high levels of need and low levels of use. But these states do not have a level of unmet need statistically different from the rest of the nation. In contrast, California, Florida, and Texas had significantly higher rates of unmet need, compared with the other states.

The study highlights the need for more mental health services in many states. However, the researchers say their findings also suggest that some states need to do a better job of making sure mental health services are targeted to children who have the greatest need. RAND conducted the study by analyzing information from the National Survey of America's Families, which included information on more than 45,000 children ages 6 – 17 who were surveyed in 1997 and 1999. The 13 states in the study represent more than half the nation's population and were chosen because they vary in terms of location, size, demographics and political traditions.

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