When President Biden gave his recent State of the Union address, it included initiatives around children's mental health proposed by Friends’ Central Trustee Tami D. Benton-Condiff, MD, and her colleagues.
Tami has dedicated her career to helping children in their mental health struggles, especially those in underserved communities. She is the Psychiatrist-in-Chief, Executive Director and Chair of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Frederick Allen Endowed Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Director of the Youth Suicide Prevention, Intervention and Research at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). In October, she was elected President of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
Tami is also Vice-Clerk of Friends’ Central’s Board of Trustees and parent to FCS alum Noan Condiff ’19, and the School has had the benefit of her professional expertise on a number of occasions, including as a speaker and advisor for FCS parents/caregivers and employees on mental health issues and awareness. “We are fortunate to have Tami as a member of our community and serving on our Board of Trustees at this particular time,” said Head of School Beth D. Johnson ’77.
Recently, Tami’s knowledge and expertise have been called upon by lawmakers seeking to tackle the mental health crisis at the national level.
“Over the last nine or 10 months,” she explained, “there’s been an increased focus on the crisis of children’s mental health. It was a crisis before the pandemic hit, but the pandemic really highlighted disparities and escalated pre-existing problems. We’ve seen a tremendous change in the number of young people seeking emergency mental health services during the pandemic; we’ve seen a change in the age distribution – we’re seeing much younger children seeking emergency services; and we’ve seen some gender disparities, with girls seeking more services during the pandemic for emergency situations. And we’ve seen globally significant increases in rates of anxiety and depression reported by young people and their families.”
“The stress of the pandemic has really exacerbated pre-existing challenges around accessing mental health services. And we still face some of the same barriers we faced before the pandemic, including the stigma,” she said. With a number of high-profile people in the public eye ready to be more open and discuss their own or a loved one’s mental health struggles and challenges, Tami feels that there is starting to be something of a shift in perception. “I think the environment is changing, and it gives us some opportunities to help people who can benefit from treatment. Treatments work, you just need to get them to people. And they’re not all medications. Most people don’t need medications – sometimes they do – but most people need other things that we can provide in the community. One of the things that I think has been a positive result of the pandemic is that there’s been opportunities to think differently about how we provide services – thinking more about making sure kids get what they need, when they need it, where they need it. And expanding things that work, like school-based services.”
As part of this larger governmental initiative, Tami was invited to congressional hearings twice. She spoke at the Senate HELP (Health Education Loans and Pensions) Committee hearing in the winter, and she spoke at the Senate Finance Committee hearing just a few months ago. At the Senate Finance Committee stage, concrete funding initiatives around mental health were being considered for President Biden’s proposed Federal budget for 2023, and Tami was thrilled and encouraged to be part of that conversation.
“It was a powerful experience to see our government in action,” she said, “and to be able to offer my opinions and my recommendations for what should be done. And the fact that they are acting on the recommendations that we made is really important. I hope we see a translation of the recommendations into action: more funding for school-based mental health, more funding for integrated care so people can get their care in their neighborhood, and more funding for community mental health centers; more money for training, loan forgiveness, and funds for cross training other professionals.”
“By the time you get to the Senate Finance Committee,” she explained, “you’re close to getting something done. They ask very specific questions. They require you to write a statement for Congress, which is entered into the record. So my statement was entered into the record, including my recommendations. And the Committee was very clear that was what they wanted. They didn’t want to just hear my opinion; they wanted to know where to allocate funds.”
In preparation, Tami and her team had put a great deal of work into her statement for Congress, working across groups, including the Children’s Hospital Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and about 70 other organizations. “A few months back,” she said, “we declared a state of emergency for children’s mental health. And we outlined a very clear agenda that we could all agree on to be able to support that work.”
When asked what the most essential message was that she had wanted to convey to lawmakers on the committees, Tami shared, “That kids in our country are really struggling with their mental health, and families are coping with stress – a lot of environmental changes that they can’t cope with by themselves. And that mental health is real. There’s no health without mental health. And we actually have interventions that work.”
As a medical student, Tami decided to do her training in pediatrics, adult psychiatry, and child psychiatry. She developed an interest in the interface between mental health and medical illness in pediatric populations. And she was also interested in working with underserved populations and minoritized youth. She trained in New York City, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, in a pilot program that combined the three specialties. She subsequently moved to Chicago, where she worked at Lurie Children’s Hospital and found that she liked the children’s hospital environment. In 1999, she came to the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, where she has been ever since.
“It’s really hard to work in mental health and not be an advocate for children’s mental health because it’s so poorly supported, and I see all these challenges every day,” she reflected. “I started off working with mostly sickle cell disease, kids who had pretty severe medical conditions, who also suffered with anxiety and depression. And, over time, my work really focused on suicide prevention in youth, particularly minoritized youth, where the rates are going up.”
“You have to speak about these things,” Tami said. “There’s not a lot of knowledge; most people are afraid to speak up. Families face so many challenges – it’s so hard to make an appointment, to find a good provider – and it’s frustrating because treatment is out there.”
“My career has evolved as my practice has evolved and as my understanding of the issues impacting medical care and mental health in particular have evolved,” she continued. “It’s taken me in some new directions.” She never imagined that she’d find herself testifying before Congress – let alone twice – and public speaking was not something she’d previously enjoyed, but it has now become something she takes on without a second thought. “I feel like this is the moment, and all of us really have to seize this moment for children’s mental health,” she shared.