Colorado’s psychiatric beds for kids are in short supply

Mental health experts say the isolation caused by the pandemic is especially damaging to children.

DENVER — Every day, between 15 and 50 children in the emergency department of Children’s Hospital Colorado end up in some sort of mental health crisis, a dramatic increase since the start of the pandemic, administrators say.

By mid-October, the hospital system said more than 5,000 children had reached the mental health emergency department, according to Jason Williams, the director of operations for the hospital’s Pediatric Mental Health Institute.

“Our system was working before the pandemic and the pandemic has really, really made things worse,” Williams said.

“Children who need the care cannot find the beds in the children’s hospital or elsewhere.”

Mental health experts say the isolation caused by the pandemic is especially damaging to children, who are developing social skills.

“They feel isolated, lonely, don’t belong,” says Dr. Carl Clark, the executive director of the Mental Health Center of Denver. “In Denver in particular, suicide rates for young people in particular are twice the national average.”

Clark said a lack of psychiatric beds has always been a problem in Colorado. But lately the problem has worsened.

“We’ve been paying a lot of attention to ICU beds across the country. It’s still being reported, how close we are to running out of those beds, we haven’t paid that much attention to psychiatric beds in our community or even psychiatric capacity,” he said.

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He said a recent positive change in public policy could have sparked the issue.

“If someone has been in the hospital, sometimes they are ready to leave, but not to go home. They are ready to go to a residential treatment facility,” he said. “A very good approach to government policy was that we wanted children to be in homes and not residential settings, so there was a lot of pressure to make sure that children had a home to go to and many of the housing facilities that are open. wares for younger people have closed over time. the years.”

Clark said advocates for better mental health care are making progress, especially among young people. He points to the success of early intervention programs in schools.

Children’s Hospital Colorado leaders hope to use the ongoing crisis as momentum for change.

“The curse and blessing of COVID is that the need for behavioral health interventions has never been greater,” said Zach Zaslow, director of government affairs for Children’s. “But elected officials are seeing this and hearing this from their voters, so there is tremendous will from both Democrats and Republicans at the local, state and federal levels.”

Zaslow said progress is already being made. A Colorado behavioral health task force determines the best way to spend approximately $450 million in federal COVID recovery funds. The hospital and other mental health providers are lobbying them to ensure that a large portion of that goes into mental health programs for young people, who represent about a third of the state’s population.

Zaslow said the state is also working to create a unified behavioral health administration that can unify statewide silo programs that often work on their own.

“It can create a system where if you’re a parent on Friday night and your 15-year-old is in crisis, you know where to go,” he said.

Zaslow said he hopes efforts focus on early intervention to reach children before they end up in the emergency department.

Williams, who runs the pediatric mental health department, said the problem will only get worse until significant changes are made and the pandemic subsides.

“I described it at one point as a tsunami that had not yet reached the coast and we are waiting for this wave. The tsunami has now struck in multiple ways,” he said.

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