Editorial | Getting focused on city kids’ mental health

Dr. Kevin M. Simon

Mayor Wu’s proposed FY ’23 budget puts unprecedented emphasis on “elevating mental and behavioral health as a citywide priority.” It’s a much- needed step, particularly in the wake of the Covid pandemic and its disruptions.

“Bostonians, especially our young people, are experiencing a mental health crisis that requires an urgent, wrap-around public health approach,” Wu said on Tuesday.

The man who will guide that approach within the Boston Public Health Commission is Dr. Kevin M. Simon, who has taken on a new role in the last two weeks as the city’s first-ever Chief Behavioral Health Officer. Simon, 37, is a first-generation American, born to Haitian parents in Brooklyn, NY. A child psychiatrist, he has lived in Boston for the last several years building up his own practice at Boston Children’s Hospital. He also teaches at Harvard Medical School.

“Clinically, the patients that I see from Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan— oftentimes when I’m talking with parents, sometimes there are challenges with the youth themselves and the systems they exist in,” Simon told the Reporter this week. “They tend to be school related. We’re just coming off the pandemic where there was a lot of isolation, so there has definitely been an escalation in anxiety, depression, and teens and even young adolescents presenting to hospitals.”

He says he’s making the move into public sector role to have a greater impact — taking what he has been hearing from his patient families on a daily basis and bringing it to bear on wider city policy.

“I hear the challenges that families are having navigating the mental health system, securing treatment and then— if they do secure treatment— securing reimbursement for it,” Simon said. “It’s not just my vision, but the commission’s vision and Mayor Wu’s to think about how we can have someone like me who can communicate to academic medicine, to community partners, with a variety of different stakeholders to say: This is a pressing issue that we all can see. We [must] convene a way that— at the end of the day— youth are served and families are served from an emotional, wellness and mental health standpoint.”

How that will develop from concept to practical application remains unclear, but his initial charge is to give oversight to “a comprehensive behavioral health agenda for the city through a public health lens.”

One way Simon might move the needle over time is by modeling his own path into medicine for other young men and women. Like the case in many communities, there’s longstanding suspicion about mental health care among immigrant populations— and persistent barriers for those who do want access.

“It’s going to require nuance to be able to explain culturally why talking to someone might be beneficial,” Dr. Simon says.

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