Children's Hospital Colorado's recent emergency declaration regarding young people attempting suicide supports stakeholders' fears that there's a behavioral healthcare crisis that is likely to continue well after the pandemic ends.
Children's CEO Jena Hausmann said Tuesday that pediatric emergency departments and inpatients units are "overrun" with suicide attempts and other severe forms of mental illness.
"The current system is simply unsustainable and it's failing our children," Hausmann said.
The system has seen a 90% increase in demand for behavioral health treatment in the past two years. That rise has only accelerated throughout the pandemic, as underlying depression and anxiety becomes exacerbated by months of isolation and stress.
Children's Colorado Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Brumbaugh said the situation has worsened over the last several months. The number of behavioral healthcare cases presenting across the entire system has nearly doubled since Jan.1, compared to the same period in 2019.
"There have been many weeks in 2021 where the number one reason for presenting to our emergency department is a suicide attempt," Brumbaugh said. "Our kids have run out of resilience; their tank is empty."
Brumbaugh said most days the health system has between 12-24 children waiting for psychiatric inpatient beds. The wait to be admitted can range from several hours to a couple of days.
Similar increases in mental health-related emergencies among youth have been reported nationwide.
Mental-health related emergency department visits rose by 24% among children ages 5 to 11, and by 31% among youth ages 12 to 17 between March and October of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last November.
"It's been a rising epidemic for some time," said Amy Knight, president of the Children's Hospital Association regarding the problem of mental health issues among children. "But the reality is when you pile on the events of last year with pandemic and issues of racial injustice, we've just seen it skyrocket."
Pat Givens, chief nursing executive for Children's Colorado, said the system is building capacity both within its inpatient and outpatient behavioral healthcare services, with a goal of increasing them by 50% by March 2022.
The rise in demand has forced other pediatric healthcare providers across the country to try alternative approaches to delivering mental healthcare. Many of those strategies have focused on abating social stressors to avoid more severe and longer-term mental health issues.
Knight said more community-based mental healthcare services were needed to address long-term care.
Hausmann called for collaboration between policymakers, schools and other stakeholders to address the pediatric mental health crisis similar to the way those entities have worked together to respond to the pandemic.
"Our children need us to rally together to embrace their mental wellbeing, and most importantly save precious lives," Hausmann said.