Understanding Barriers to Initial Treatment Engagement among Underserved Families Seeking Mental Health Services

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17 Scopus citations


This mixed method study examined factors associated with parents not attending their child’s mental health treatment after initially seeking help for their 2–5 year old child. It was part of a larger study comparing two evidence-based treatments among low-income racial/ethnic minority families seeking child mental health services. Of 123 parents who initiated mental health treatment (71 % African American or multi-racial; 97.6 % low-income), 36 (29.3 %) never attended their child’s first treatment session. Socio-demographic characteristics, parenting stress, depression, severity of child behavior problems, and length of treatment delay from intake to first scheduled treatment session were compared for families who did and did not attend their first treatment session. Parents who never attended their child’s first treatment session were more likely to live with more than four adults and children (p =.007) and have more depressive symptoms (p =.003). Median length of treatment delay was 80 days (IQR = 55) for those who attended and 85 days (IQR = 67.5) for those who did not attend their child’s first treatment session (p =.142). Three themes emerged from caregiver interviews: (a) expectations about the treatment, (b) delays in getting help, and (c) ambivalence about research participation. Findings suggest the need to develop better strategies for addressing risk factors early in the treatment process and reducing the length of time families with adverse psychosocial circumstances must wait for child mental health treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)863-876
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Child and Family Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • At-risk families
  • Attendance
  • Child mental health
  • Engagement barriers
  • Parenting
  • Treatment delay

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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