Youth with laptop
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Growing up, I had the most incredible pediatrician. I would get sick several times a year and need to see him for urgent visits. I remember the fear I had each time, knowing despite my denial, I would have to undergo the dreaded throat or nose swab.

As my mom drove me to the clinic, the worrisome pit in my stomach grew bigger and bigger. However, Dr. Johnson would always put me at ease. His voice was loud but gentle, with a calming presence. When I saw him, I knew everything would be okay.

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My childhood experiences with my own pediatrician helped me choose to pursue the field of child and adolescent psychiatry as the path to helping youth beyond just their physical health. I wanted to become a doctor dedicated to helping them successfully navigate their feelings, thoughts and ability to live healthier lives.

As a behavioral health professional, nothing makes me prouder than working for a company that understands the importance of collaboration between higher education and health systems to make the health system work better for everyone. 

UnitedHealth Group is committed to advancing health equity by helping to build an inclusive, skilled mental health workforce that reflects the changing social, racial and economic demography of California’s children, youth and families and helps address the state’s shortage of mental health providers.

Ultimately, our investment in a more diverse health care workforce that better reflects our society and is prepared to provide culturally competent care to all patients can help reduce disparities in health conditions, experiences and outcomes. And I’m especially pleased that a UnitedHealth grant is helping UC San Diego expand the state’s youth mental health talent pipeline with a focus on inclusivity and diversity. 

To become a child psychiatrist, I completed a three-year adult psychiatry residency program, followed by two additional years of training dedicated to working with youth and families. There are complexities in youth mental health care that require additional training and preparation.

For instance, mental health symptoms and conditions present differently in youth. And when a mental health professional works with youth, they must also work with the entire family and navigate a system, including the child’s pediatrician, school and community connections. For some, it may feel overwhelming. 

UnitedHealth recognizes these challenges and has invested in opportunities to help support medical professionals who have an interest in child and adolescent psychiatry. With the help of a $4 million grant announced in 2020, the UC San Diego School of Medicine launched the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Inclusive Excellence Program (CAPIE) to help build a more diverse mental health workforce in California.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, California has a mental health worker shortage projected to worsen unless meaningful action is taken to address the problem.

The CAPIE program provides individualized mentorship, preclinical courses and financial support for participating medical students. Based on a survey conducted by UC San Diego, 87% of students who engaged with the CAPIE program were more likely to pursue child and adolescent psychiatry as their medical specialty because of their experience in the program.

The need for more professionals to pursue youth mental health care is evident. The CDC estimates 1 out of 5 children experience a mental illness in a given year. However, only half of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health challenges receive the treatment they need, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

I’ve seen firsthand how severe and life changing mental health conditions can be for youth and their families. I have also seen how the right care and support can make a world of difference, both in the present and future. I am incredibly honored to carry this work forward for our members, patients — and especially today’s youth.

Dr. Yusra Benhalim is senior national medical director of Optum Behavioral Health Solutions, a unit of UnitedHealth Group.