Background: Although many children with mental health problems are in contact with primary health care services, few receive appropriate help.
Methods: Using a pathways to care model, this paper systematically reviews the literature relating to access to services. It separates out the various stages of help-seeking: parental perception of problems, use of primary care services, recognition within primary care, and referral to or use of specialist health services.
Results: Following parental awareness of child symptoms, parental perception of problems is the key initial step in the help-seeking process. Although children with mental health problems or disorders are regular attenders within primary care and most parents acknowledge that it is appropriate to discuss concerns about psychosocial issues in this setting, few children are presented with mental health symptoms even if their parents have such concerns. Subsequently, less than half of children with disorders are recognised in primary care. Amongst recognised children, about half are referred to specialist services. Overall, up to one-third of children with disorders receive services for mental health problems. Factors such as the type and severity of disorder, parental perceptions, child age and gender, and family and social background factors determine which affected children access services.
Conclusions: As there are inequities in patterns of service use, a greater emphasis on developing resources at population and primary care levels is required. Barriers involving parental perceptions and expression of concerns within consultations should be minimised at these levels. This requires both public education approaches and improved training and specialist support for primary care services to enhance their ability to provide for these children.