Dr. Asim Shah (320x240)
Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair for community psychiatry in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.

Nearly one in five children in the U.S. suffer from a mental health disorder, according to The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The most common diagnoses in children, ages 3 to 17, are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome, behavior disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and substance use disorders.

Those figures are even higher in Harris County, the third largest county in Texas. According to a 2017 report from The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, 39 percent of children, ages 6 to 17, have a behavioral health need that is categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. 

To meet this growing need, psychiatrists at Baylor have been working to expand pediatric outpatient psychiatric facilities in Harris County. Under the leadership of Asim Shah, M.D., chief of Psychiatry at the Harris Health System and Ben Taub Hospital and executive vice chair and professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor, countless of additional children are now getting the help they need.

In May, Dr. Shah was awarded the Children's Mental Health Champion Award from Mental Health America. The honor is bestowed upon an individual who shows “extraordinary advocacy, leadership, and vision in improving the lives of those affected by mental illness.”

“Pediatric psychiatric services are very near and dear to us because we know the young people in Harris County are suffering,” says Dr. Shah. “Children’s mental health has been in the forefront of our minds and efforts this past year as we heal and rebuild our lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.”

Dr. Shah says it is critical that physicians diagnose and treat mental health concerns in childhood when the brain is still developing. In fact, nearly half of all mental illnesses, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and substance abuse disorders, are thought to begin by age 14. Such conditions severely influence how children develop, learn, and socialize, as well as their ability to lead productive lives in adulthood.   

As the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey approaches, Dr. Shah says they are still seeing many kids with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children who lost their homes or important belongings frequently suffer from anxiety, depression, or phobias.

With the support of a $2.6 million grant from the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Dr. Shah, in collaboration with Eric Storch, Ph.D., vice chair of Psychology at Baylor, has been able to increase access to care for these children by expanding outpatient pediatric services. This grant is a collaboration between Baylor, Harris Health, and Texas Children’s Hospital. The Harris Health System offers several outpatient facilities including the Southside School-based clinics, Pasadena Adolescent Health Center, Cypress Health Center, and El Franco Lee Health Center, as well as a dedicated addiction clinic for children.

“Two days after the storm hit, our clinical team, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, were on the front lines at the George R. Brown Convention Center treating adults and children with mental health needs who were evacuated. For the past year, in the aftermath of the storm, we have continued to provide that same level of care and work together to treat families as they rebuild their lives,” says Wayne Goodman, M.D., D.C. and Irene Ellwood Professor and chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Baylor.

The need, he says, is likely to grow. Dr. Goodman says that PTSD symptoms were found to last for up to four years after Hurricane Katrina. While some children have obvious symptoms like panic attacks, other signs may be more subtle such as withdrawing from their friends, having difficulty sleeping, or losing interest in favorite activities.

"In Texas, we have a lot of children who do not have health insurance, as well as undocumented kids who do not qualify for Medicaid,” explains Dr. Shah. In fact, nearly half of children and youth in Harris County are living in poverty. 

While Dr. Shah has been able to expand outpatient services for kids, he is also developing a plan to grow inpatient services. He notes that there are very few inpatient psychiatric facilities for impoverished populations. In Harris County, there are only four public inpatient psychiatry beds for children less than 11 years of age, and 16 beds for those between 11 and 18 years old.

“With enough philanthropic support, we are hoping to someday build an inpatient psychiatric unit. Any effort to increase mental health services for kids makes a great deal of difference for them both now and for their future.”