Jennifer Pannone needed help.
The resident of Schenectady, N.Y., was pregnant, a global pandemic was unfolding and her fiancé had committed suicide weeks earlier, on New Year’s Day 2020.
Despite getting support from a local health system, including more than 50 referrals to behavioral health specialists, she has not been able to find a specialist who was accepting new patients.
“When everything shut down, so did all the counseling and the resources,” Pannone said. “With COVID sending everybody home, a lot of providers were not accepting new patients. I am still on a waiting lists to get a mental health provider.”
Pannone said her motivation to seek care has not only been for her own well-being, but out of concern that her issues with anxiety and depression will negatively affect her 8-month-old daughter Victoria in the long term. While she waits, Pannone said she is doing her best to keep up a positive appearance.
“I just try and stay busy and smile for her,” Pannone said. “When it really hurts deep down inside you just try and cover that up so she doesn’t pick up on that.”
Scenarios like this are unfolding across the country, creating the potential for a mental health crisis in coming months and years.
“It’s hard to overestimate the impact that the pandemic has had on behavioral health issues, especially among children,” said John Snook, director of government relations and strategic initiatives for the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare. “Where we’re struggling still is making sure that people can get the mental healthcare they need when they need it.”
Yet despite the need for services, many of the same barriers that have been responsible for hindering access to behavioral healthcare services in the past—provider shortages, narrow networks and weak reimbursement—also have limited care options for children and created a backlog that could take the healthcare system years to rectify.
Dr. David Axelson, chief of psychiatry and behavioral health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said his unit saw nearly 6,000 kids for psychiatric crises during 2020, an 13% increase over 2019.
Nationwide Children’s was better prepared to handle the influx because in March of 2020 it had opened its Behavioral Health Pavilion, a nine-story, 386,000-square-foot facility.
Axelson said observation and stabilization units in the pavilion have helped decrease the percentage of kids admitted as inpatients, which makes more space available for the most severe cases. “It allows for the best and most efficient utilization off our most limited resource, which is essentially our psychiatric providers,” Axelson said.