Hurricane Katrina:

Barriers to Mental Health Services for Children Persist in Greater New Orleans, Although Federal Grants Are Helping to Address Them

GAO-09-563: Published: Jul 13, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2009.

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The greater New Orleans area--Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes--has yet to fully recover from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. As a result of the hurricane and its aftermath, many children experienced psychological trauma, which can have long-lasting effects. Experts have previously identified barriers to providing and obtaining mental health services for children. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other federal agencies have supported mental health services for children in greater New Orleans through various programs, including grant programs initiated in response to Hurricane Katrina. GAO was asked to study the federal role in addressing barriers to these services in greater New Orleans. In this report, GAO (1) identifies barriers to providing and to obtaining mental health services for children in greater New Orleans, and (2) describes how federal programs, including grant programs, address such barriers. To do this work, GAO used a structured interview and a written data collection instrument to gather views on barriers from 18 state and local stakeholder organizations selected on the basis of experts' referrals and the organizations' roles in children's mental health. To learn how federal programs address these barriers, GAO reviewed documents from and interviewed federal, state, and local officials involved in providing mental health services to children. GAO's work included a site visit to greater New Orleans.

Stakeholder organizations most frequently identified a lack of mental health providers and sustainability of funding as barriers to providing mental health services to children in the greater New Orleans area; they most frequently identified a lack of transportation, competing family priorities, and concern regarding stigma as barriers to families' obtaining services for children. Fifteen of the 18 organizations identified a lack of mental health providers--including challenges recruiting and retaining child psychiatrists and psychologists--as a barrier to providing services to children. Thirteen organizations identified sustainability of funding, including difficulty securing reliable funding sources, as a barrier to providing services. A lack of transportation was most frequently identified--by 12 organizations--as a barrier to families' ability to obtain services for their children. The two second most frequently identified barriers to obtaining services were competing family priorities, such as housing problems and financial concerns, and concern regarding the stigma associated with receiving mental health services. A range of federal programs, including grant programs, address some of the most frequently identified barriers to providing and obtaining mental health services for children, but much of the funding they have supplied is temporary. Several federal programs support state and local efforts to hire or train mental health providers. For example, HHS's Professional Workforce Supply Grant has resulted in recruitment and retention incentives to mental health providers in the greater New Orleans area. Several HHS programs allow funding to be used to transport children to mental health services, including Medicaid and the 2006 Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) supplemental funding provided to Louisiana. However, much of the funding, including that from the Professional Workforce Supply Grant and the supplemental SSBG, is hurricane-related and will no longer be available after 2010. School-based health centers (SBHC) have emerged as a key approach in the area to address barriers to obtaining mental health services for children, and although there is no federal program whose specific purpose is to support SBHCs, state programs have used various federal funding sources to support them. For example, a Louisiana official told us funds from HHS's Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant and Community Mental Health Services Block Grant support SBHCs in greater New Orleans. SBHCs address the transportation barrier because they are located on school grounds, and they help families by reducing the need for a parent to take time off from work to take a child to appointments. In addition, because SBHCs provide both mental health and other primary care services, the type of service a child receives is not apparent to an observer, which may reduce concern about stigma. In commenting on a draft of this report, HHS provided additional information on mental health services provided in schools other than through SBHCs and emphasized the effect of a lack of stable housing on children's mental health. HHS also provided technical comments. GAO incorporated HHS's comments as appropriate.

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