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Long-term mental health services use in children referred to a clinical intervention.



Recent advancements in pediatric mental health (MH) increased accessibility of evidence-based interventions. Yet, accessibility alone does not explain the rise in MH services use (MHSU). Maltreatment-related adversity, symptom severity, and access to early interventions have been linked to ongoing need for services, yet their joint contributions to continuities in MHSU remain unclear.


The study examines the role of maltreatment, externalizing symptom severity, and referral for early intervention in pediatric MHSU across five years. To evaluate engagement in treatment, we accounted for treatment progress and referral type, comparing MHSU in court-mandated and voluntary participants.

Participants and setting

Participants were 321 children (M = 4.3 years; 58.9 % boys) referred to parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT), an evidence-based intervention for families struggling with child disruptive behaviors and maltreating families involved with child welfare. Services were provided at a university-affiliated clinic in a metropolitan county.


Symptom severity was assessed with standardized questionnaires; maltreatment history and referral type were obtained from casefile reviews. MHSU was tracked through county behavioral health diagnostic reports. The data were analyzed using structural equation modeling.


Results indicated that for the 44.9 % of children with onward referrals, the frequency of service use, but not progress in treatment, predicted ongoing services. Maltreatment emerged as a universal predictor, while externalizing predicted MHSU only in court-mandated participants, suggesting referral type contributes to quantifiable differences in MH needs.


Findings emphasize importance of ongoing funding for pediatric MH services, and the need to explore mechanisms underlying continuous MHSU in vulnerable children.

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