Colorado’s pediatric mental health crisis continues, professionals say | Mental Health

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A year after Colorado Children’s Hospital declared a state of emergency for pediatric mental health on May 25, 2021, officials say the situation has worsened as record demand for treatment continues to exceed the ability.

“The number of children coming to us for emergency care that is in crisis is higher, and our inpatient unit continues to be full,” said Zach Zaslow, senior director of government affairs at Children’s Hospital Colorado. , which operates 16 emergency services, emergency and specialty locations throughout the state.

In the first quarter of this year, the system saw a 23% increase in the number of patients presenting to the emergency room with suicidal thoughts, major depressive episodes, psychotic crises and other mental illnesses, compared to the first quarter of 2021.

That’s a 103% increase from the first quarter of 2019, before the pandemic began, officials said.

Plus, Zaslow said, more tweens and teens are staying longer in emergency departments or hospital beds than necessary because they have nowhere to go.

“They’re ready to go out, but they’re not ready to go home, and there’s no residential bed or community foster home ready to accept them,” he said.

The state’s most pressing challenge is the labor shortage, said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the Colorado Department of Social Services’ Office of Children, Youth and Families.

The office oversees the child protection and juvenile offender systems.

The need in Colorado is shifting from generalist to specialist providers, Castillo Cohen said.

“We recognize that our youth placement continuum must have the right mix so that we can meet the individual needs of all children, from the community services a child may receive while living at home with their family through to most intensive treatment in a psychiatric residence. care,” she said.

Psychiatric residential treatment facilities, which serve the most seriously mentally ill children, are particularly understaffed, Castillo Cohen said.

The data also shows that the need for providers who specialize in youth substance use disorders exceeds capacity, she said.

The Pikes Peak area continues to see “significant mental health needs,” said Cari Davis, executive director of the Colorado Springs Health Foundation.

The organization was created 10 years ago through the rental of Memorial Health System at the University of Colorado Health and provides grants in El Paso and Teller counties that target immediate health care programs.

The Colorado Health Institute’s 2021 Colorado Health Access Survey showed that 35% of El Paso County residents ages 16 and older experienced a decline in mental health due to the pandemic. of COVID-19.

“The need was great before the pandemic, but now it’s even greater,” Davis said. “All age groups have suffered, but young people seem to have been particularly affected.”

About one-third of Colorado Springs Health Foundation grants — a payout of more than $8 million over the next three years — is allocated to mental health and addictions programs in the community, she said.

Nationally, teens are the saddest they’ve ever been, according to a 2021 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the study, American high school students who reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness rose from 26% in 2009 to 44% in 2021. And one in five high school students nationwide said they had considered the suicide.


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The CDC numbers coincide with what Emergency Departments at Children’s Hospital Colorado are seeing, Zaslow said.

Suicide remains the leading cause of death for children and young adults ages 12 to 24, according to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

But Mental Health America’s latest report on youth mental health released Tuesday ranked Colorado 13th in the nation, indicating it falls within the range of lower prevalence of youth mental illnesses and better access to care than the states listed below.

Attorney General Phil Weiser credits the Law Department in part with providing nearly $1 million since 2018 to Sources of Strength, a school-based suicide prevention program involving peer leadership, emotional support and the importance relationships with adults and seeking help.

Such programs “play a pivotal role in empowering teens across Colorado,” Weiser said in a statement.

Lawmakers took note of the alarm bells sounded by industry executives last year, Zaslow said.

“We’ve really seen a remarkable increase in awareness and sensitivity that this is an issue that needs immediate solutions, from elected officials at all levels of government,” Zaslow said. “The reality is people are seeing this in every community in the state.”

A COVID relief fund that lawmakers designated in the 2021 session for behavioral and mental health was partially allocated in this year’s session through 13 bills that include adding behavioral health services for juvenile offenders and increasing treatment beds.

State lawmakers have also supported increased Medicaid reimbursements, community behavioral health programs, workforce training and telehealth services.

As part of system reform, tasks for a new Behavioral Health Administration were set this session to create a more family-friendly and easier-to-navigate process and make other improvements.

Whether families use private or government-subsidized insurance, Castillo Cohen said the goal is to find “solutions to provide community-based care first and foremost before anyone needs to access care in establishment”.

But it takes time, industry leaders said, for the changes to come online and start making a difference for children and families.

County social service workers continue to see the need increase daily, said Lexie Kuznick, director of the Colorado Human Services Directors Association, which last year advocated with state officials for relief for acute patients in the child protection and juvenile justice systems awaiting treatment.


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“Children in crisis today cannot wait a month or two or six to find themselves in the most appropriate treatment setting,” she said. “We must find creative solutions to the employment challenges in residential facilities and the severe shortage of appropriate placement options for our most needy children and youth in the short term, as we continue to expand childcare supports. prevention and early intervention in the longer term.”

Advocates draw attention to congressional lawmakers for backing the Strengthen Kids Mental Health Now Act, a comprehensive proposal that would provide money to states to decide how best to spend the funding in their communities and boost programs schools, workforce and agency partnerships.

“We need more sustained investments as temporary COVID dollars expire and clinicians tell us we’re going to see a cohort of children impacted by the stresses of the pandemic requiring sustained support,” Zaslow said.

“The youth mental health crisis is a pandemic in its own right.

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