Youth mental health services in crisis

As youth suicide attempts rise, mental health experts declare state of emergency

Thelma Grimes
tgrimes@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 5/28/21

With suicide attempts on the rise, and emergency rooms statewide filling up with psychiatric patients, Children’s Hospital Colorado (CHC) declared a state of emergency last week. During a special …

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Youth mental health services in crisis

As youth suicide attempts rise, mental health experts declare state of emergency

Posted

With suicide attempts on the rise, and emergency rooms statewide filling up with psychiatric patients, Children’s Hospital Colorado (CHC) declared a state of emergency last week.

During a special round-table discussion on May 25, health experts said they are seeing dramatic increases in young patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation and social disconnectedness. Participants in the panel agreed hospital beds are filling up, resources are running low and more help from the county, state and federal levels are needed.

According to statistics provided in the hour-long discussion, the leading cause of death for children and young adults, starting at age 10, is suicide in Colorado. According to 2021 data from Mental Health America, Colorado ranks 42nd in youth mental health services.

CHC has hospitals and services throughout the Denver metro area, including locations in Arapahoe, Jefferson, Douglas, Denver and Adams counties.

In Aurora, at the main regional campus in Aurora, the 52-bed emergency department is now overrun with youths in crisis. Emergency visits went up 90% in April compared to the same normal time in 2019.

In declaring a pediatric mental health state of emergency, CEO Jena Hausmann said CHC has worked more than decade to expand facilities, programs, and beds to serve mental/behavioral health issues for children and teenagers. However, she noted, it is not enough with the continual increase in patients starting in 2020 and continuing at an even faster pace in 2021.

“Now we are seeing our pediatric emergency departments and in-patient pediatric units overrun with kids attempting suicide and suffering from other major mental-health illness,” Hausmann said. “The current system is unsustainable, and it is hurting our children. Our children need us to rally together.”

Dr. Janna Glover, CHC director of psychology training, said even though society is seeing COVID issues improve, the impacts on children and teenagers are going to continue.

“Kids have dealt with chronic stress in the past year that a has interrupted their development and education,” she said. “Now, kids are asked to get back to life again and they feel completely unprepared. They are burnt out and they feel so behind that they do not know how to catch up. They feel a sense of hopelessness.”

Glover said hopelessness is the top predictor of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

Through tears, David Brumbaugh, the CHC chief medical officer, said some of the cases hit too close to home. Brumbaugh said he had a ninth-grade patient who attempted suicide after failing to make the baseball team. Brumbaugh said his own son is in ninth grade and plays baseball.

Brumbaugh said in his 20 years of treating pediatric patients, he has never seen such a high demand for mental health services. The stress on the system started about 15 months ago, Brumbaugh said, and the last three to four months have been even worse.

“Our kids have run out of resilience,” he said. “We are seeing kids who were largely functional and now the floor is falling out. They are attempting suicide.”

Patricia Givens, the chief nursing officer for CHC, said, “We are tapped out in all areas. We cannot build enough beds to keep pace with demand.”

Givens said hospitals are seeing children as young as 8 years old attempting suicide. CHC experts said a lot of the problems in are rural communities where training in schools and services are lacking. Experts said if teachers, counselors and staff receive more training, they can intervene and get help for children and teens before they get into a crisis mode.

CHC officials said hospital beds once being used to treat patients with physical injuries and illnesses are being converted into beds for patients presenting with behavioral health issues. Besides treating patients who have attempted suicide, hospitals are seeing an increase in patients suffering from eating disorders and presenting with symptoms associated with substance abuse.

Many of the health experts said the situation is going to require partnerships with county governments, health departments, school districts and state and federal agencies.

Heidi Baskfield, CHC vice president of population health and advocacy, said it is going to require more funding. It is going to require more work to reach children or teens in crisis before they attempt suicide and put pressure on the healthcare system, she said.

Mike DiStefano, chief medical officer in Colorado Springs, said a major focus must be placed on prevention, where outpatient services intercept children in crisis long before they attempt suicide.

Preventive services are also in crisis. Over the last few years, Baskfield said 47 facilities across the state closed. These are facilities that have traditionally provided mental health care to children and teenagers.

“At a time when we are seeing volumes increase, severity increase and overall need, the system that is meant to be in place to serve these kids not only does not exist but those attempting to do this work are underwater and overwhelmed,” Baskfield said.

While not present during the round-table discussion, Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas said the county wants to be the example other communities across the state can follow.

In 2017, Douglas County started investing more than $1 million per year into mental-health services, creating a Community Response Team. In 2019, the county created the Youth Community Response Team after more than 40% of the calls for help were for residents 19 and younger.

Thomas said the partnerships health experts are calling for can work statewide and the CRT program is proof. Douglas County suicide rates are decreasing and partnerships with local organizations, especially the Douglas County School District, have gone up, she said.

“We want to take the success we have had here statewide,” she said. “For us, the good news is we are ready to handle the crisis with our youth.”

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