UNC assistant professor using grant to fund new program for kids who need help with mental illnesses

Orange County News

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, experts estimate one-third of all children have suffered from depression or anxiety.

While life seems to be getting more back to normal, there are still a lot of concerns about the lasting impacts on kids’ mental health.

CBS17 spoke with a UNC psychiatry professor who is launching a new program that could make a huge difference.

They said it could be as simple as a student logging into a computer a school.

“I’m really worried that we have a generation of kids who have been through a very traumatic experience, going through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Nate Sowa, an Assistant Professor at UNC’s Department of Psychiatry, said. “We don’t really know how that is going to impact their development long term, what that’s going to look like for our society in terms of as they grew up and enter the world.”

With a $1.97 million grant, any kid can talk to someone, and get the resources and guidance they may need. 

Sowa is heading up a new program to make ground on the problem the national pandemic has caused.

“We’re having more children who are having suicidal thoughts, feelings, (thoughts of) injuring themselves and ending up in our emergency rooms,” Sowa said.

His team will be working with some school districts to provide tele-psychiatry appointments for their students.

“We have about 200 child psychiatrists in the state (and) they’re in 31 of the 100 counties,” he said. “So, there’s a large part of the state that don’t have access to that specialty level of care.”

Right now, his team is working to identify two different locations in North Carolina to try out the program.

Sowa said he is aiming to start in areas where there are a lot of barriers that prevent parents and their children from getting the help they need.

“Maybe (families) don’t have… even if they have the internet, maybe they don’t have access to a device where they can contact a provider through a laptop or a smartphone,” Sowa said. “With COVID-19, it has really shone a bright light on one of the cracks in our society and the lack of access. Reliable access for health care is a big one.”

The program will not only get kids behavioral and mental health treatment, but it’ll also link their families to resources and local healthcare agencies to make sure they’re all taken care of, he said.

“We really have a responsibility to provide this type of care to our children, because they’ve really been through a large-scale traumatic event and need to have some sort of help,” Sowa said. “So that they can move beyond this, these past couple years and you know, really develop somewhat, hopefully, normally moving forward.”

Sowa said the plan is to spend the next three to six months gathering information and identifying areas that need to most assistance. Then Sowa’s team will choose the trial sites and schools and begin their work.

The funding, through a partnership with the SECU foundation, lasts for three years. Sowa’s team hopes to use this time to create a more sustainable, long-term solution.

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