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Texas Children’s Hospital announces plan to tackle mental health crisis

 Texas Children's Hospital in Houston
Macie Kelly
Houston Public Media
Texas Children's Hospital in Houston

Texas Children's Hospital is launching a series of services to address the unprecedented spike in demand for pediatric mental health resources exacerbated by the pandemic.

Three Texas Children's hospitals have seen an 800 percent increase in emergency room visits from kids and teens with severe mental illness. Before the pandemic, the ERs usually treated 50 to 100 children every month for suicide attempts, ideation and self-harm. Now, the average is 400 to 450 patients a month.

The uptick has also shown up in lower levels of care. Pediatricians at the hospital system are estimating around 60 percent of primary care visits include some mental health component. Out-patient referrals related to behavioral health have also surpassed any other type of referral across Texas Children's, according to Chief Psychologist Karin Price.

She said closing or scaling down schools and pediatric clinics during parts of the pandemic had unintended consequences.

"COVID really disrupted both of those systems," Price said. "These are places where kids are going to be noticed if they’re having less acute, less severe behavioral health concerns. Places where we could get some kind of prevention and early intervention going on — that dropped a whole lot during the pandemic."

The average age of patients is also skewing lower, Price said.

At the same time, kids and teens were facing added risk factors for mental illness — social isolation, food insecurity, economic stressors and trauma.

The hospital system raised $11 million to expand behavioral health training and access to care in community settings.

One program seeks to strengthen the connections between primary and specialized care. Pediatric clinics will soon be staffed with in-house psychologists.

The money will also be used to build intensive outpatient programs — a third option for adolescents who aren't sick enough to be hospitalized, but too sick for traditional out-patient care. This option allows teens and kids to stay home with their families and greater community.

"Getting into the community, partnering with schools, making sure that we’re finding kids where they are and equipping people kids see in their daily lives to help them take care of behavioral health concerns," Price said.

Texas Children's plan also emphasizes the need to equip health care professionals with additional skills — a solution that provides a quicker response to the rise in demand and addresses the reality of the workforce shortage. Training new mental health professionals can take years.

Texas Children's will train pediatricians — typically the first professional parents reach out to — how to treat issues relating to anxiety, depression and ADHD. Other staff, regardless of specialty, will receive training to identify the warning signs of suicide and respond with the correct tools.

"We have an incredible workforce shortage in behavioral health across the board,” Price said. "Truly, it’s going to take our entire community to be able to respond to those things."

Copyright 2022 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Sara Willa Ernst | Houston Public Media