Providing Mental Health Services to TANF Recipients: Program Design Choices and Implementation Challenges in Four States. Children in TANF Households


According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2000a), at least one in five children and adolescents age 9 through 17 has a diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year. Mental disorders among children can lead to failure in school, alcohol or drug use, violence, and suicide. Furthermore, the responsibilities and emotional stress associated with managing a child with a mental health condition can limit a parent's employability.

Two of the study states, Tennessee and Florida, extend eligibility for mental health services to children living in a TANF household regardless of whether the household head is receiving mental health services. The decision to provide mental health services more broadly to children of TANF families requires program administrators to think differently about the types of services offered. For instance, the mental health needs of children differ from those of adults, so an entirely different set of treatment options must be offered. This approach may be more costly than restricting services to adults on TANF, but it addresses the needs of the entire family.

Another advantage of extending mental health services to children is that it may actually encourage parents who need treatment to participate in treatment. Mental health counselors indicated that parents may feel more comfortable accessing treatment for their children than for themselves and that being exposed to and involved in treatment through their children frequently decreases parents' anxiety about their own participation in mental health treatment.

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