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INDIANAPOLIS — As mental health issues are growing more and more dire among youths in the United States, with the U.S. Surgeon General even issuing an advisory highlighting the urgent need to address the crisis, an IU program is hoping to change that.

A $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Sheild Foundation was given to IU School of Medicine’s Indiana Behavioral Health Access Program for Youth, which will help more children facing mental health challenges.

The program is known as Be Happy, and will have five years of operational support.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge stressor for all our lives, and in particular the lives of children and adolescents, leading to new and worsening mental health concerns,” said Dr. Rachel Yoder, co-director of Indiana Be Happy, in a press release. “Many families have difficulty accessing mental health care and generally first seek help from their pediatricians. By providing immediate consultation, child mental health providers within our program can help pediatricians catch and address mental health concerns early and improve access to evidence-based treatment.”

Before the pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading causes of disabilities and poor life outcomes in young people, with 20 percent of children between ages 3-17 having a mental disorder of some kind. Suicidal behaviors have also increased during the decade preceding the pandemic.

The new grants will allow the Be Happy program to expand its availability and accessibility through the state with telehealth and other services. It will also allow the program’s leaders to conduct online education sessions and provide technical assistance/information to primary care physicians. This will help with the timely detection of mental health issues, assessments, treatments and referrals.

The Be Happy program focuses specifically on rural and other underserved areas to combat the health inequity related to minorities and those in geographic disparities. It will also increase access to resources for providers, children and their families.

Be Happy co-director Zachary Adams explained that primary care physicians are more accessible to families than mental health specialists, but they often lack the training to treat mental health in youth. This can lead to under-prescription and/or over-prescription of medications, delays in care, worsening symptoms and other potentially harmful and expensive outcomes.

Be Happy will offer consultations for health care professionals that work with youth at no cost to the providers. There are currently 570 providers across 62 counties that have registered for these services. The program has also completed 1,079 consultation calls regarding medication questions, therapy questions and diagnostic questions or evaluations.

The most common diagnoses after the proper education provided through the program are anxiety disorders, ADHD and depression.

“We are honored to be able to continue and expand Be Happy services,” Adams said in a press release. “We are particularly excited about opportunities to reduce inequities in access to behavioral health care services, and we will continue to identify opportunities to sustain these services long term to meet the mental health needs of Indiana youth and families and the health care professionals who serve them.”