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Mental Health Awareness Month: How a Kicking The Stigma Action Grant is helping Hoosier children access mental health care

Through a Kicking The Stigma Action Grant, Riley Children's Be Happy program expanded to provide access to evidence-based treatments to children who previously were unable to receive it. 

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After launching Riley Children's Behavioral Health Access Program for Youth (Be Happy) – which offers pediatricians and primary care providers free same-day consultations on a wide range of pediatric mental health topics – Riley Director for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Dr. Leslie Hulvershorn heard an overwhelmingly positive response from those using it.

But while she knew those consultations were incredibly helpful, there was a missing piece to the pediatric mental health puzzle Be Happy could provide: Thousands of Hoosier children were still unable to access the kind of evidence-based therapy they needed. And there wasn't much Dr. Hulvershorn could do about it.  

"As a psychiatrist who takes the calls, it was so sad for me to say, okay, you're on the right track with the medicine but good luck with the therapy," Dr. Hulvershorn said, "and I know that's what they really need, that's going to make the biggest difference."

Thanks to a $650,000 Kicking The Stigma Action Grant awarded to the Riley Children's Foundation in 2022, that gap in the Be Happy program is now closed – and youth across the state are better off for it. 

For example: If a pediatrician believes a patient is dealing with a childhood disruptive behavior disorder, like oppositional defiant disorder, decades of evidence-based research has shown that parent management training is the most effective route to take. The problem, though, is: "It's very, very hard to find child mental health clinicians in the state of Indiana who know how to deliver interventions like this," Dr. Hulvershorn said.

But now, Be Happy can take over the psychotherapy component to treatment that can't otherwise be addressed in most community settings once pediatricians call the line, if indicated. Be Happy will either deliver the care virtually or at the Riley Pediatric Care Center, providing a pathway to truly treat the patient's mental health. 

"Since the funding, (pediatricians and primary care providers) are saying, wow, you didn't just give me advice," Dr. Hulvershorn said, "you completely solved the problem here and provided state-of-the-art care to these kids that otherwise would literally have no access to anything in the state."

Dr. Hulvershorn began having conversations with Colts Owner/Vice Chair Kalen Jackson a few years ago and is grateful for the Colts and Kicking The Stigma's support for the Be Happy program. Part of the grant, too, went toward funding support for the Riley consultation-liaison team within IU Health to help direct pediatric patients already being treated for something else (like cancer) toward mental health services available to them while they are hospitalized.

"What I really appreciated about the Kicking The Stigma approach is there's a lot of intentionality around not just funding whatever comes their way," Dr. Hulvershorn said, "but really looking at what is evidence-based, what's really going to move the needle."

Adding psychotherapy assessments and treatments to the Be Happy program has already made a significant impact in improving the mental health of hundreds of Indiana youth. An additional benefit of the funding is helping pediatricians and psychiatrists avoid an over-reliance on medication, which can happen in the absence of accessible therapy programs.  

But the Kicking The Stigma Action Grant had another positive impact, too. The work Dr. Hulvershorn and pediatric psychiatrists and psychologists do is difficult amid a pediatric mental health crisis. And the recognition and validation of that work by one of Indiana's largest brands, the Colts, and most recognizable families, the Irsays, goes a long way toward supporting the people doing it. 

"It helps our morale — it's really hard to do this work, and the clinicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers who are all working in this area, when they feel like the community values them enough to actually give money to what they're doing, it's very validating and it's really useful for us in terms of helping people feel vital in the work that they're doing," Dr. Hulvershorn said. "Like – the Colts think that you guys are doing incredible work, so much so that they are actually going to give money to do the work that you do, which is so valuable. It's high profile and shines a light on this work signaling how important it is. The Irsay family thinks that this is what should be happening, and I think it makes people feel grateful to be acknowledged but also messages that their work is important."

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