Dr. Shalene Kennedy hates having to tell families in crisis there's a waiting list at her pediatric mental health clinic. The wait is 3-4 weeks at its peak, though some families must wait even longer.

Kennedy hopes a second Aris Clinic in Woodbury, which opened Sept. 3, will offer some relief.

The new site, located at 2040 Woodwinds Drive, will treat children and teens in seventh through 12th grades. With the expansion, the Currell Boulevard location will focus on treatment of children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

The top issues the clinic treats include depression and anxiety, which ties in with school avoidance. Kennedy said she's noticed an increase in school avoidance in the last decade, especially with kids who don't have an easy time in class. Other issues the clinic handles include finding the reasons behind verbal or physical aggression at home, and social and situational stressors, such as divorce, a parent's loss of a job, and moving or changing schools.

Along with psychotherapy and psychiatric treatment, Kennedy said clinic staff also checks nutrition, exercise, sleep and other environmental factors that affect mental well-being.

Kennedy stressed that "it really does take a village" to raise a child, and that asking for help as a parent isn't a bad thing. Plus, having a whole family unit come in can give vital context to a child's behavior.

“It’s very nice to have this spectrum of services where we can feel like we’re really making an impactful difference in the whole family unit, because most of the time it’s really not just the child that has to make changes," Kennedy said. "Even good parents sometimes need a new angle.”

Dr. Shalene Kennedy
Dr. Shalene Kennedy

In addition to outpatient therapy sessions, the clinic specializes in an Intensive Outpatient Program, which usually lasts 6-8 weeks. During the school year, patients in this program receive three hours of therapeutic programming each day and attend class for the remainder of the day at the clinic through teachers from Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916. The clinic also works with patients' schools to ensure appropriate curriculum, Kennedy said.

The summer version of the Intensive Outpatient Program includes the same therapeutic programming without the school element.

An under-served specialty

A chronic lack of providers in child psychiatry was one of the main drivers for Kennedy entering the field. After considering other specialties in medical school, her connection with young people and desire to meet an under-served need led her to where she is now.

There is a "severe shortage" of child and adolescent psychiatrists (CAPs) in Minnesota, according to 2017 data from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which calls any amount of child and adolescent psychiatrists below 47 per 100,000 children "insufficient." Minnesota has 11 CAPs per 100,000 children.

With a population of 62,796 children under 18, Washington County had just five CAPs, according to 2017 statistics. The only Minnesota county with a "mostly sufficient" number of CAPs was Olmsted, home to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Throughout the U.S., most states were categorized as having a "severe shortage," while a mainly northeastern group of states and Hawaii had a "high shortage." Only the District of Columbia had a "mostly sufficient supply" with 60 CAPs per 100,000 children.

Each Aris Clinic will have nurse practitioners, a physician's assistant and several therapists, each working with a particular age group. Though the nurse practitioners can see patients and prescribe medication, Kennedy, as a psychiatrist, is likely the only provider at the clinics that would fall into the CAP category.

"I think we're really trying hard to fill the void," she said.

The Intensive Outpatient Program at the Woodwinds location will serve up to 40 patients in grades 7-12. The IOP at the Currell clinic, where the kindergarten through sixth grade program will be located, will begin with 12 patients with the potential to increase to 40. Many more will be able to attend outpatient therapy sessions, Kennedy said.

There are also three providers that can see adults for therapy sessions and medication management. Both clinics will conduct family therapy, including as part of the Intensive Outpatient Program.

People seeking treatment for a child or young adult, themselves or their family can go to the clinic's website and fill out the needs assessment. Then, the clinic will meet with the potential patient to see if its treatment is the right fit. If not, staff will help them find the right place for treatment.

Kennedy said experiences with her family have made her especially sensitive to helping people access mental heath treatment. She said seeing loved ones go through mental health issues and try to navigate the mental health care environment has made her a better provider.

"There’s that more personal feeling when you have walked this journey," she said.

Location, location, location

The Woodwinds location is Aris' second in Woodbury and will allow the 7616 Currell Blvd. location, which opened in 2011, to focus on treatment for children in kindergarten through 6th grade.

The city has marketed itself in recent years as medical destination with 227 health care businesses open as of March, said communications manager Jason Egerstrom. About 20 percent of jobs in Woodbury are in health care, Egerstrom said.

Although there were many factors that went into choosing the location, Kennedy liked the Woodwinds site for its proximity to Woodwinds Hospital. This allows clinic patients easy access when they are referred for blood tests or other medical care. Because she will serve as a psychiatrist at both locations, having the clinics less than a 10-minute drive apart is convenient for Kennedy.

Then there's the 20-acre plot of land the Woodwinds location is placed on, tucked away in a patch of forest at the end of a winding driveway. There are walking trails and space to have an outdoor classroom and a small garden, Kennedy said.

“It’s such a healing piece of property," she said.