When Delafield pediatrician Renee Szafir wants a second opinion on how to treat a child with depression or another mental health condition, she can draw on the expertise of a child psychiatrist or psychologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

They often will get back to her within 30 minutes — and always within 24 hours.

“It makes me more comfortable. It makes the family more comfortable,” Szafir said. “It’s been an invaluable resource for us as pediatricians.”

The Medical College’s Child Psychiatry Consultation Program was created to help address a severe shortage of child psychiatrists and now is available in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties as well as 15 counties in northern Wisconsin.

“It’s a way to extend the reach of primary care,” said Jon Lehrmann, a professor and the chair of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

That’s become essential, given that physicians such as Szafir don’t have the option of immediately referring patients to a child psychiatrist.

It can take several months to get an appointment with a child psychiatrist, and as long as nine months depending on the severity of the child’s condition, Szafir said.

At the same time, primary care physicians often are uncomfortable diagnosing psychiatric illnesses in children and reluctant to prescribe drugs without consulting a specialist. That’s in part because children’s brains are developing, and less is known about how drugs used to treat mental illness affect them.

Szafir draws on the consultation program, for instance, when a diagnosis isn’t clear.

“I use them a lot to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this kid in my clinic. What do you think?’” she said.

Gov. Scott Walker has proposed increasing funding for the program — now funded by a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Health Services — to $1 million a year and expanding it to other parts of the state.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 13% to 20% of children have a mental, behavioral or developmental disorder.

Among the most common disorders are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood and anxiety disorders such as depression, and disruptive behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.

Half of all mental illnesses, such as major depression and anxiety disorders, begin by the age of 14.

The Child Psychiatry Consultation Program, operated in partnership with Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, has provided more than 1,250 consultations since 2015.

It is available to 375 pediatricians, family medicine physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants in the Milwaukee area and northern Wisconsin.

The…