A psychiatrist on site at every pediatrician's office is not a realistic scenario. But a program launched in Essex County offers the next best thing.

Funded by a grant from the state Department of Children and Families, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and the university's medical school have partnered with Essex County pediatricians to offer on-the-spot psychiatric services for their patients who are displaying potential signs of mental health issues.

According to the university, 1 in 5 young people has a diagnosable mental disorder. Ten percent have a mental health challenge that affects their ability to function at home or in school.

"Pediatricians are in a unique place to identify some of these issues, but they may be uncomfortable with providing psychiatric services or they don't have the resources to link families to the mental health services that the child may need," said Evelyn Orozco, principal investigator on the project.

Through this program, known as Essex Hub, pediatricians can call a hotline for consultations with UBHC staff. If the pediatrician has telemedicine capabilities, the behavioral health professional can connect face-to-face with the physician, as well as the patient and their family.

"Depending on the need, they can either be discussing possible medication or ongoing treatment," Orozco said, noting doctors can also choose to refer the youth to UBHC for on-site services in Newark.

The project is expected to serve about 60 pediatricians and 100 non-physician professional or administrative care staff at 20 primary care practices throughout the county, expanding access to mental health care for approximately 120,000 children and teens. The grant was awarded in July and, following presentations to pediatricians and medical providers, referral started coming in by late December.

The one-year grant can be renewed for a total of five years. Orozco said the program serves as a model for addressing the nationwide shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists. Their numbers could be 30 percent below demand by 2020.

Similar programs exist in other New Jersey counties. This is the first venture of its kind for Essex County.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.