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Children's National Expands Primary Care with Embedded Mental Health Services

Washington, DC—Moving some mental health services into a primary care setting can remove barriers to mental healthcare and provide easy, quick access to services to the many that need them. This integrated model is one government agencies and mental health organizations advocate as a means to increase the availability of treatment and improve the nation’s mental healthcare system.


On July 1, 2014, Children’s National Health System began offering mental health services in the primary care setting, the Whole Bear Care: Primary Care Behavioral Health Services program, by embedding a child psychologist in the hospital’s Adolescent Health Center and Children’s Health Center (CHC) from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday. Embedded psychologists give patients access to services, screenings, and mental health referrals right away. 

The program began as the brainchild of psychologist, Donna Marschall, PhD, Director of Mental Health Services, and William Barnes, PhD, MBA, Executive Director of Community Support Services, who saw the need to make mental health services easier for all kids to access. Dr. Barnes says the idea “came out of the recognition that in the U.S., we don’t do enough in screening for mental health. We’re very conscious of physical health but not always mental health.” From this idea, they began a pilot program that ran successfully from March to June of this year, before launching officially in July.

Dr. Marschall says that for many families, this program serves as a “first touch point into mental health services” and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “Good mental well-being is paramount to children’s functioning in their day-to-day lives. It’s so integral to the rest of their lives so that if we’re able to intervene and connect people efficiently with services we really set up these children for success throughout their lives.”

Cara Biddle, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and the Medical Director of the Children’s Health Center, says, “Until now it’s been hard to get mental health services in place for patients and families, and many families just need some help managing behavioral issues and with parenting skills.” She says having a psychologist embedded in CHC has also proved “very helpful in some urgent situations in terms of crisis management and making sure kids get plugged in rapidly to services.” 

The program is offered in the Children’s Health Center and Adolescent Health Center at the Sheikh Zayed Campus for Advanced Pediatric Medicine with plans to expand to the Good Hope Road and Adams Morgan locations

The program also is a beneficial training tool for pediatricians to learn from and consult with mental health providers in real-time. As more and more primary care providers are called to provide basic mental health services, Dr. Barnes says the Children’s National model can be easily replicated in other hospital-based and community-based settings. 

Contact: Caitlyn Camacho at 202-476-4500.


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