EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A program facilitated by Bradley Hospital aims to improve access to and delivery of pediatric mental health services.

The Pediatric Psychiatry Resource Network (PediPRN) encourages pediatric primary care providers (PPCPs) to consult with mental health specialists.

The program is made possible by a grant from Rhode Island’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the van Beuren Charitable Foundation. The free service is offered to all PPCPs in the state, though advance enrollment is encouraged.

“The role that we really play is helping empower pediatricians or pediatric primary care providers, so not just pediatricians, but anyone whose providing that primary care meet the mental health needs of their patients,” explained Dr. Sarah Hagin, who serves as project manager for PediPRN.

Earlier this spring, doctors declared a state of emergency for child and adolescent mental health.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (RIAAP) and the Rhode Island Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (RICCAP) issued the advisory, alongside Bradley and Hasbro Children’s hospitals. Doctors said the emergency was “tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19,” as well as the “ongoing struggle for racial justice.”

The pandemic accelerated mental health problems that already existed, doctors said, and “pushed this situation into a full-blown emergency.”

One of the ways PedPRN can help is through free consultations with mental health specialists.

Dr. Michelle Parker, an attending child and adolescent psychiatrist at Bradley Hospital, fields a variety of questions on a daily basis.

“Like, ‘Hey, I’ve tried all of these medications already. It’s not really sticking. Something’s not working. What do I do now?'” she said, giving an example. “Or, ‘How do I switch from this medication to that medication safely?'”

“We also get tons of questions about just diagnostic clarity, like, ‘This looks kind of like ADHD, but I think there’s anxiety. What do I tackle first?'” she continued.

Hospitals were already seeing “record numbers” of children in the emergency room for inpatient mental health services “years before the pandemic started,” Parker said.

“And then, of course, it was just exponentially exacerbated by the pandemic itself,” she added.

According to Parker, the program helps to address what she says is a lack of access across the state.

“There just are not enough child psychiatrists or child psychologists or mental health workers in general to treat all the kids who really should be at our level of care or need to be at our level of care,” she explained.

Hagin said with a majority of calls, the outcome will be that a pediatrician continues to play a significant role in their patient’s mental health care treatment.

“It’s not that they’re calling and we’re kind of saying, “OK, we’ll take care of that for you.’ We’re not able to do that, [but] we’d love to,” Hagin said.

“[Pediatricians] are getting answers to questions, and then they’re applying it to that patient, and they’re continuing to work with them and see them and do the best they can to manage their mental health treatment until additional resources open up or until the patient feels better,” Hagin added.

PediPRN’s website notes that “any child or adolescent in Rhode Island who comes to a pediatric primary care practitioner with evidence of a possible, or likely, mental health disorder is eligible for the free service.”