Child Mental Health Care expert discusses technological advancement in the field

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Jonathan Comer’s speech was a continuation of a series of invited speakers at the center for prevention of youth behavior problems in the McMillan building. CW / Caroline Japal

Camille Studebaker

In a continuation of the center for prevention of youth behavior problems invited speaker series, speaker Jonathan Comer, associate professor and director of the Mental Health Interventions and Technology Program at Florida International University, addressed America’s lack of mental health care availability and the potential of technology in this area in his speech, “Beyond brick and mortar: Leveraging new technologies to extend the reach of quality care for early child behavior problems.”

Comer seeks to improve the quality and accessibility of psychological treatments for early childhood problems. He spoke about how technology can be used to overcome geographic barriers preventing people from receiving effective children’s mental health care. Comer said mental health care professionals are not making enough impact in communities today with current programs.

“We’re sort of at risk of being a proverbial tree falling in the woods with no one there to hear it,” he said. “These programs that have helped so many people in a laboratory setting aren’t making enough noise.”

Comer talked about how quality providers tend to cluster in major metropolitan regions or academic hubs, so effective mental health care is few and far in between. He said many counties lack psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, so families often struggle with having to travel to mental health clinics.

He said when people live in areas where there is no quality mental health care, they visit the child’s pediatrician, and the pediatrician does not have the training to provide adequate mental health care. Because of this, America is seeing a spike in rates of off-label prescribing (when a physician prescribes a drug that has been FDA approved to treat a different condition than the one that is present.)

Comer said he thinks technology may be an opportunity to extend the reach of what mental health care professionals know works. While Google and various apps can provide advice for parents about their kids, Comer said self-administered apps without real human involvement fail.

Because of the failures, Comer talked about an available therapy option called Internet-delivered parent-child interaction therapy. This option is a spin off of PCIT (parent-child interaction therapy), in which a parent and child interact in a room at a clinic and a therapist watches behind a one-way mirror with a microphone and speaks into the parent’s Bluetooth earpiece providing discreet coaching during the session.

In Internet PCIT, the family is in their own home and the parent wears a Bluetooth earpiece and puts up a web camera so the therapist can provide real life coaching to the parent in their actual home. Comer said Internet PCIT can expand the reach of expert providers and overcomes the geographic barrier that so many people struggle with.

“Families dwelling in rural or impoverished regions that typically are underserved by quality mental health care can participate in real time expert care regardless of their proximity to the clinic,” he said. “Our thinking is that in addition to overcoming geographic barriers, we may expand the ecological validity of treatment by treating families in their natural settings.”