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U.S. mental health experts urge focus on childhood screening

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. mental health system has huge gaps that prevent many children with psychological problems from receiving effective treatment that could prevent tragic consequences later in life, experts told U.S. lawmakers on Thursday.

Just over a month after the shooting rampage in Newtown, Connecticut, mental health experts said psychological disorders usually emerge before people enter high school but that only one-quarter of children with problems see trained professionals and often the care is not enough.

"We see the results of insufficient mental healthcare in school failure and suicide. How do we do better?" Michael Hogan, head of the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, said in written testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"While the gaps in children's mental healthcare are huge, there is also reason for hope," he added. "In part, this is because we know more about what works, and what doesn't."

Hogan, a former New York mental health commissioner, was scheduled to appear with two other experts Thursday at the Senate committee's first hearing on mental health issues since the presidency of Republican George W. Bush, who set up the commission Hogan now chairs.

The hearing was scheduled in response to the shootings at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School where Adam Lanza, a young man described as having mental issues, gunned down 26 people including 20 young children with an AR-15-type assault rifle on December 14.

The tragedy and other mass shootings in recent years have ignited a debate about gun control and mental health, including a push by President Barack Obama for stronger gun controls and better mental health training for schools and communities.

Robert Vero, chief executive of a network of Tennessee clinics called Centerstone, said mental health professionals who work with children also lack access to parents and other relatives whose problems may contribute to a child's troubles, sometimes due to inadequate insurance coverage.

"We need to be able to teach parenting skills if we want the child's behavior to change," said Vero. "We need to be able to address the parent's depression or addiction."

The experts credited Obama's healthcare reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with making a step forward by requiring insurers including Medicaid to provide coverage for mental health issues.

But they said the American social safety net still fails to provide adequate access for the poor and elderly, noting that state mental health funding declined $4 billion from 2009 to 2012 as a result of budget constraints posed by recession and the weak economic recovery.

(This story was corrected to fix clinic network's name to Centerstone from Cornerstone in paragraph 8)

(Editing by Jilian Mincer and Lisa Shumaker)

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