Several children’s hospitals said the supply of inpatient psychiatric beds has been so short, they’ve had to board kids in their emergency departments — sometimes for weeks.
In January through April of this year, behavioral health emergency department visits were up 72% over the same time period two years ago, the hospital said. The numbers have been tapering off this month and last, but there is concern there will be another spike when school starts back in August and September.
“Kids’ mental health, truly, has been under assault for over a year,” Glover said. “It’s probably actually worse than people think it is.”
Hoffmann’s hospital also had to board kids in the emergency department or admitted them to medical beds, where they sometimes wait for days until a psychiatric inpatient bed opened up. Colleague Dr. John Walkup, chair of the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the hospital, said the pandemic exacerbated access problems that have been around for awhile.
“We’ve never had an adequate mental health system in the United States for kids — never — and so you take an inadequate system to begin with, and then all of a sudden, you put kids who are at elevated risk … in a very difficult living and life situation. And you now have a crisis of access,” Walkup said.
“Those kids, when you take away school, family support, income support, food support, housing support, or they lose a relative, those kids really become symptomatic in a big way,” Walkup said.
Children who can get treatment, Walkup says, are doing OK during the pandemic. It’s the ones who can’t access help that the world should worry about.
“The world doesn’t work if we don’t have good behavioral health for kids,” Walkup said.
In Colorado, the mismatch of supply and demand for additional inpatient psychiatric beds is unmatched in pre-pandemic times, said Zach Zaslow, the senior director of government affairs at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
“We end up boarding kids in our emergency department or in our inpatient unit, not because that’s what’s best for them but because there’s literally nowhere else for them to go,” Zaslow said. “Sometimes they get transferred to out-of-state residential facilities to get the care that they need, which splits families up,” he said. “And that can be traumatizing for kids as well.”
If there is a silver lining in the pandemic, the experts say, people have started to recognize that the system has to change.
Zaslow said after Children’s Hospital in Colorado declared a state of emergency, there was bipartisan recognition about issues of access. The state set aside about $500 million of the money Colorado got from the federal American Recovery Act plan for behavioral health for adults and kids. Colorado also increased its funding for residential treatment facilities.
And if kids are able to get support, there are highly effective treatments.
Bailey Lynn knows exactly how important it can be. In addition to being on the youth board for Children’s Hospital Colorado, the hospital has helped her with her own mental health long before the pandemic. She was bullied for much of her life, and in seventh grade, she felt so isolated that she couldn’t see a way through.
“That of course led to my first suicide attempt and I’ve had a few more throughout the years,” Lynn said.
Therapy, and being able to advocate for help, kept her alive. But the pandemic has not left her unscathed.
“I just remember days that I would just turn off my computer when school was over and I would just lay in my bed and I wouldn’t have the motivation to do anything, and then I would simultaneously be anxious from not doing anything,” Lynn said.
Lynn said it helps to know she’s not alone.
Talking with her peers on the board she learned “everyone was just burnt out” from the pandemic. Together, they are now “just counting down the days until this quarantine and Covid is over.”