The clinic provides free dental and mental health care

By Ken Sain
Staff writer

It’s no secret that the pandemic has caused a lot of stress and children have not been immune.

Hygienists at East Valley Community Dental Clinics noticed the problem last year, so they worked with Southwest Behavioral and Health Services to address it.

The Children’s Dental Clinics in Chandler and Gilbert are screening patients from low-income families to see if they could benefit from counseling from mental health professionals.

“The reason we did this collaboration was because we started seeing kids with health issues, mental health issues, that we thought, ‘We need to do something about this,'” said Diana Westphal, director of community dental oral health at Dignity Health, who operates the two clinics in the East Valley.

She said one of the reasons this partnership makes sense is that the financial burden is a hurdle that discourages low-income families from seeking help.

Becky Grudowski, program director at Southwest Behavioral and Health Services, said they received a grant to pay for mental health services for up to 10 children.

So far, about 30 children have been referred to mental health counselors for additional screenings since the program began in February. Grudowski said many of them did not need professional advice and still had funds available.

When a child from a low-income family shows up for dental treatment at one of the two clinics, they are x-rayed. The parents of children under the age of 12 are asked the questions to determine if additional screening is needed.

Children 12 and older fill out their own screening form.

“And then we look at that, based on what we’re seeing, we might ask a follow-up question or two to clarify that,” said Sharon Gilloon, one of the dental hygienists for Dignity Health. “And then we pass that on, we explain to them what would happen next if they state here that they want advice or if they state some areas that they have taught us to consider as critical areas.”

Each hygienist received about four hours of training to help them screen the children they treat. Grudowski said there have always been some children who had mental health problems.

“It’s something that’s always been prevalent, but yeah, I’d say the pandemic has increased mental health issues in teens and young people by 100%, specifically things like anxiety, depression and self-harm,” Grudowski said. “We’ve seen an increase in these issues.”

Both sides say the partnership has worked well so far.

“We’ve started to see some signs that have created an awareness within our team, like we need to do something to help these families,” Westphal said. “So that’s how the whole idea came about when we started looking for resources and navigating the system. And we learned that it was difficult to find your way around the system at first.”

Gilloon said she believes they are helping children who might not otherwise be getting the help they need.

“I honestly just feel privileged to be able to offer some services to the kids,” she said. “I feel like it’s definitely needed, and the sooner the better in someone’s life. They can learn some skills to deal with some of the things we’re seeing.”

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