While the majority of our population has been battling COVID-19, our children have faced not only the pandemic, but also a second pandemic that has been less visible.
The tragic reality we are witnessing within our hospital walls is that one of the top reasons that children are coming to Children’s Hospital Colorado’s emergency department is because they are having suicidal thoughts or making suicide attempts.
Our Colorado Springs hospital’s unit for behavioral health emergencies is usually full, and once we stabilize children with mental health emergencies in our emergency department, we often end up caring for them in our pediatric medical care unit for weeks while they await a spot in an inpatient behavioral health care facility. As a community and a state, we are running out of beds for children seeking help, and as their depression and anxiety skyrocket, many pediatric mental health facilities have closed due to lack of funding.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for Colorado children over age 10. Emergency department visits due to anxiety and depression, or feelings of isolation, disconnectedness and hopelessness, are up 72% this year across our system compared to the same period in 2019. Even before the pandemic, the national suicide rate among adolescents and young adults ages 10 to 24 increased 57.4% from 2007 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These heartbreaking statistics — and every child they represent — inspired Children’s Colorado to recently declare a pediatric mental health state of emergency for the first time in our hospital system’s 117-year history. Our goal is to rally state-wide support for youth mental health.
We applaud Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado General Assembly for increasing funding this month for services supporting youth mental health. The House Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment to Senate Bill 21-137 that adds $5 million to fund emergency short-term capacity-building for quality, specialized youth residential placements and therapeutic foster care. This funding will be used to open beds in qualified residential treatment programs, psychiatric residential treatment facilities and therapeutic foster care within the next six months.
A legislative committee also adopted amendments that increase the bill’s funding for crisis services from $2 million to $5 million. This can help expand bed capacity and dedicated respite services for children and youth, as well as a pilot program for youth mobile crisis. It can also fund community-based services that help families manage crises in their homes, connecting children with appropriate treatment while also determining which services could benefit the entire family. The legislature also increased funding for school-based health centers, a vital way to address kids’ needs where they learn and play.
This recent funding is a strong start, but it should only be the beginning of our efforts to save children’s lives. On the public policy front, we are working with partners to ensure that pediatric mental health receives an appropriate amount of the $3.9 billion Colorado expects to receive from the American Rescue Plan Act. This funding should be used for a range of services: staffing schools with mental health experts and training teachers to recognize symptoms so they can refer children to services, additional hospital and residential beds for kids in crisis, the staff and training required to deliver care and services to the patients in those additional beds, as well as expanded outpatient care and partial hospitalization.
If you are wondering how you can help kids, here are two ways: Alert the community to this crisis and call your elected representatives to demand additional funding for pediatric mental health services. And, whether you are a parent or not, check in with the young people you know. Ask how they are doing. If you are concerned about their mental health or think they may be suicidal, ask them directly. While sometimes people worry that they will plant the idea of suicide, what you will actually do is signal that you are there to provide support.
As fathers of teenage and grade-school children who daily witness the effects this secondary pandemic is wreaking on them and their friends, we entreat you: We must leverage all of the science, resources and support we can possibly muster to develop a treatment for the pediatric mental health pandemic threatening our children. Together, we have what it takes to show up for our kids. Let’s not fail them.
Greg Raymond is president of Southern Colorado Care System at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Mike DiStefano is the chief medical officer of Children’s Hospital Colorado.