Demand soars for children's mental health services; families waiting up to 9 months for therapists

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Some Triangle nonprofits that specialize in improving children's mental health are seeing a 111 percent spike in referrals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One Cary center recently applied for a grant to open a new facility to help with the demand.

Parents are dealing with long wait times.

"Nine months is an eternity for a teenager who dealing with these issues," said Steve Bergstrom, whose teenage daughter is now seeing a therapist. "She expressed the desire to just go talk to somebody about all these issues that are going on with her friends, with her, in her schooling. She felt overwhelmed with how far she felt she was falling behind in school. So she came to us and asked for that, and it took nine months to get that first visit in."

Jessica Lewis went through the same struggle with her second-grader.

"Therapists are backed up," said Lewis.

The first mental health professional they found didn't work out. The therapist said she had to scale back her caseload.

The boy is now getting help from someone else.

Lewis isn't sure it's the best fit, but it's better than nothing.

"You can't be really choosy," said Lewis. "We're paying more out-of-pocket, but at this point, you do what you have to do for your children."

A new report is shining light on this issue and ranking North Carolina 42nd in the country for youth mental-health services in schools.

The Hopeful Futures Campaign finds 132,000 North Carolina children have major depression and more than half of those kids do not receive treatment.

The report also says the ratio of school psychologists to students is 1 to 2,567, which is more than five times the recommended ratio.

The ordeal has reshaped goals for Bergstrom's daughter.

She's now want to pursue a degree in psychology.

"It's empowering in one way, where she's been able to say 'I want to help other people who dealt with this,' but as a parent, you see it, and it's heartbreaking to have to see your daughter wait nine months to get some time of help," said Bergstrom.

The Wake County School District says it is working to tackle this issue and increase access to services.

Every K-12 school in the state is required to come up with a plan to improve mental health for students and staff.
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