Outpatient Visits and Medication Prescribing for US Children With Mental Health Conditions

Pediatrics. 2015 Nov;136(5):e1178-85. doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-0807. Epub 2015 Oct 12.


Objective: To compare the mental health care US children receive from primary care providers (PCPs) and other mental health care providers.

Methods: Using nationally representative data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) from 2008 to 2011, we determined whether children and youth aged 2 to 21 years with outpatient visits for mental health problems in the past year saw PCPs, psychiatrists, and/or psychologists/social workers for these conditions. We compared the proportion of children prescribed psychotropic medications by provider type. Using logistic regression, we examined associations of provider type seen and medication prescribing with race/ethnicity, household income, insurance status, geographical area, and language at home.

Results: One-third (34.8%) of children receiving outpatient care for mental health conditions saw PCPs only, 26.2% saw psychiatrists only, and 15.2% saw psychologists/social workers only. Nearly a quarter (23.8%) of children saw multiple providers. A greater proportion of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) versus children with anxiety/mood disorders saw a PCP only (41.8% vs 17.2%). PCPs prescribed medications to a higher percentage of children than did psychiatrists. Children seeing a PCP for ADHD were more likely to receive stimulants or α-agonists than children with ADHD seeing psychiatrists (73.7% vs 61.4%). We found only limited associations of sociodemographic characteristics with provider type or medication use.

Conclusions: PCPs appear to be sole physician managers for care of 4 in 10 US children with ADHD, and one-third with mental health conditions overall. Efforts supporting mental health in primary care will reach a substantial portion of children receiving mental health services.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Ambulatory Care
  • Anxiety Disorders / drug therapy
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / drug therapy
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Mood Disorders / drug therapy
  • Physicians, Primary Care
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychiatry / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychotropic Drugs / therapeutic use*
  • Young Adult


  • Psychotropic Drugs