MILWAUKEE — A pediatric psychiatrist shortage is so bad in Wisconsin that doctors say families are waiting as long as two years to be seen by a mental health expert. It sounds unimaginable, but for many southeast Wisconsin families, it’s their reality.
Last August, mom Maria Rivera moved her family to Milwaukee from Madison. They had a tough time finding a doctor to help manage anxiety and depression for her 17-year-old daughter, Mariana. At the time, they were told they would need to wait 11 months to be seen.
“I felt desperate because we need care,” said Rivera.
“To think about the suffering that occurs with mental illness that these kids have to endure while they are waiting to get that help, it’s heartbreaking,” said Dr. Jon Lehrmann, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Lehrmann calls the lack of access Wisconsin children have to mental healthcare a crisis and a crime; estimating only about one-third of those suffering see an expert.
“Wisconsin ranked 50th out of 51 in access to child mental health care for children who have had a major depressive episode,” said Lehrmann.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, out of 72 counties in the state, 49 don't have pediatric psychiatrists.
Lehrmann says many families are forced to seek help in Milwaukee County, which already only has one-third of the doctors needed to keep up with the demand.
“It's unnecessary because we as a society should have better care. This is something that's not acceptable," Lehrmann said.
Lehrmann believes the shortage is partially fueled by stigma; many families are not talking about their struggles, and doctors are not choosing to go into the specialty.
It's a stigma Rivera knows all too well.
“It's just a disease. If we treat it as a disease, we don't have to be so negative about it,” said Rivera.
“It's unnecessary because we as a society should have better care. This is something that's not acceptable."— Dr. Jon Lehrmann
Mariana now gets treatment in Milwaukee. For months, she and her mom drove back and forth to Madison. They waited until she turned 18, making it much easier to see an adult psychiatrist locally.
Lehrmann believes salary increases for psychiatrists and the rollout of new programs to help Wisconsin families will give others hope.
One of those programs Lehrmann is excited to see expand is the Child Psychiatry Consultation Program.
It's part of a network that helps pediatricians get guidance about their patients from psychiatrists.
Other resources for families are available through NAMI of Greater Milwaukee.