CHAPEL HILL, NC –It is hard to have a conversation about medicine in post- COVID-19 pandemic America and not discuss telehealth. Telehealth (broadly defined as the delivery of clinical and nonclinical health services using telecommunications technology) use has skyrocketed at the onset of the pandemic, with some estimates suggesting telehealth utilization in Medicare beneficiaries increasing nearly 13,000% over pre-pandemic levels. The Department of Psychiatry at UNC, went from performing essentially no behavioral health care via telehealth prior to the pandemic, to performing over 60,000 video visits and 25,000 telephone visits in the year following the onset of COVID-19. While this has been a challenging transition for all, providers broadly agree that for most patients, utilization of telehealth has been a highly effective way to continue to deliver care.
It’s no secret that the nation is facing a mental health crisis and one that is especially impacting our youth. In North Carolina, 81 counties (out of 100 total) have less than one psychiatrist per 10,000 residents; 27 counties have no psychiatrists. Access to BH care is even more challenging for children and adolescents – with just 200 child psychiatrists clustered in 31 counties, North Carolina ranks 39th in the United States for overall access to BH care (Mental Health America 2023 Access to Care Rankings).Thanks to funding from The Duke Endowment, Community Access for Teen and Child Behavioral Health in Johnston County (CATCH-Johnston) is responding to this crisis by offering quality behavioral health care, from UNC Health providers, at access points in Johnston County.
CATCH-Johnston Medical Director Dr. Nate Sowa notes “The expansion of virtual care in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for some underserved communities to access care that was previously unavailable to them. However, we know that there remain individuals who cannot participate in virtual care appointments for several reasons, including a lack of access to broadband internet and/or a device with which to connect to a health care provider. Our program seeks to reduce these limitations in order to make behavioral health care available to all who may need it. This is especially critical right now, given the mental health crisis facing our nation’s youth.”
CATCH-Johnston collaborates with local schools, community partners, and primary care providers to reduce barriers to accessing behavioral health (BH) (including psychiatric care) using virtual care. CATCH-Johnston utilizes virtual technology, provided by a core program team that includes leading child and adolescent psychiatrists, to provide direct care to children and families, consult with educators, and provide consultation and integration with local primary care providers.
Guided by a committed group of stakeholders from public, private and community entities providing expertise and multiple levels of support, CATCH-Johnston launched two virtual care access points in Johnston County. Johnston County children and youth can receive care at the UNC Health Johnston Mobile Outreach Unit when it is parked at either Kenly Public Library or the Benson Fire Department. More sites are planned in the coming months.
Speaking about CATCH-Johnston, Johnston County Health Department Director Dr. Marilyn Pearson notes, “Many of our children and families are not able to access behavioral health care in some of our more rural areas of the county. CATCH-Johnston will help eliminate that barrier and bring that much needed care close to their homes.”
CATCH-Johnston provides treatment for a wide array of conditions including excessive worrying, changes in eating habits, changes in academic performance, concerns or questions about sexual orientation or gender identity, talking about death or suicide and more. Parents, guardians, adolescents or service providers can request an appointment by leaving a message with the program at 984-974-1619 or referring a patient through the Epic medical chart platform (see instructions below).
To refer a child or adolescent: Call 984-974-1619, leave a message, and a CATCH-Johnston staff member will return your call (typically within 2-5 business days). Medical providers using EPIC can refer by selecting AMB Referral to Pediatric Psychiatry and the UNC PSYCHIATRY CATCH JOHNSTON  department. Please see the CATCH-Johnston website for more information: unc.live/3TW7Z0A