Improving Access to Children’s Mental Health Care

Mother and father lifting their happy child into the air

It can be challenging for some families to get mental health care for their children. Nearly 1 in 5 children have a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder1, such as anxiety or depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), disruptive behavior disorder, and Tourette syndrome. Children with these disorders benefit from early diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, only about 20% of children with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders receive care from a specialized mental health care provider2.

Some families cannot find mental health care because of the lack of providers in their area. Some families may have to travel long distances or be placed on long waiting lists to receive care. Cost, insurance coverage, and the time and effort involved make it harder for parents to get mental health care for their child. CDC works to identify policies and practices that connect more families to mental health care. Read about potential policies and practices that may help children access mental health care:

  • A reportexternal icon on supplemental security income (SSI) policies as a tool to reduce childhood poverty and improve their mental, behavioral, and developmental health
  • A fact sheetexternal icon that explains how policymakers and other stakeholders can navigate SSI asset limit requirements to improve the number of children with disabilities who can access this benefit
  • A CDC-sponsored reportexternal icon examining five service providers’ successes and challenges with implementing the Integrated Family Care model
  • An Opening Playbookexternal icon for health departments that shows ways to use available data to improve child and adolescent mental health
  • A systematic reviewexternal icon of policy levers to promote access to and utilization of children’s mental health services
  • A CDC-sponsored reportexternal icon that describes how child health stakeholders and state Medicaid programs can collaborate to reward quality and outcomes rather than quantity of care delivered
  • A CDC-sponsored reportexternal icon that describes opportunities for healthcare providers and insurers to use primary care as a launching pad toward integrated family health care
  • A review of the evidencepdf iconexternal icon of the health benefits of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), including for children’s mental health

What is CDC doing to improve access to mental health care for children?

CDC is committed to helping children and families get the mental health care they need. CDC is working to

  • Support innovative solutions that improve access to mental health care

Behavioral Health Integration Infographic
Behavioral Health Integration Infographic - thumbnail
  • Behavioral Health Integration (BHI) is one approach that can improve access to mental health services for children and their families. Partnerships between primary medical care practices and mental health care specialists can make mental health services more accessible for some families. Learn more by reading:
  • Partnering with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, West Virginia University, and Rose F. Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, CDC is working to find more efficient ways to train providers in behavior therapy. This will be accomplished by training professionals from fields that are connected to mental health, like education, social work, occupational therapy, and public health.
  • Understand gaps in the workforce

  • Pediatric Emergency Care has published a study that describes factors related to whether U.S. emergency departments (EDs) have policies in place to care for children with mental health and social concerns. As a result of this study, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and partner organizations found that less than half (46.2%) of EDs had such a policy. Learn more about this study.
  • Using data on behavioral health service providers from around the nation, CDC created state maps showing the availability of providers who can assess, refer, or treat children’s mental health concerns. View state maps showing the number of U.S. behavioral health providers per 10,000 children by county.
  • Identify problems and solutions in rural areas

Children in rural areas


  1. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. (2009). Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities. E. O’Connell, T. Boat, & K. E. Warner Eds. Washington, DC. The National Academic Press.
  2. Martini R, Hilt R, Marx L, et al.; for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Best principles for integration of child psychiatry into the pediatric health home. pdf icon[217 KB, 13 pages]external icon
  3. Characteristics Associated With Presence of Pediatric Mental Health Care Policies in Emergency Departmentsexternal icon.
    Cree RA, So M, Franks JL, Richards RM, Leeb R, Hashikawa A, Krug S, Ludwig L, Olson LM.
    Pediatric Emergency Care. November 13, 2019.