Emergency departments overwhelmed with youth mental health crises

ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) – Emergency departments across the U.S. are overwhelmed and often ill-equipped to respond to the uptick in young people experiencing mental health crises, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The organizations addressed a concerning nationwide epidemic in a joint statement, writing in part:

“For children and youth with [mental and behavioral health] conditions, there are often limited resources in the community and on the institutional level (prehospital to ED to inpatient) to provide optimal care. As a result, EDs have become a critical access point and safety net for requiring acute and safety net for those requiring acute and subacute MBH care…”

“EDs have a wide variation in their capability to care for pediatric patients with MBH conditions. Physicians, physician assistants (PAs), and nurse practitioners (NPs) working in EDs may experience challenges caring for pediatric patients’ MBH conditions.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Georgia adolescents 10 to 24 years old in 2021. Suicide rates for the group increased 52.2 percent from 2000-2021.

Wellroot Family Services provides aid for Georgia families of children struggling with mental and behavioral health. Demand for services has noticeably increased over the past three to five years.

Wellroot CEO and President Allison Ashe said many children utilizing the organization’s services come as referrals from hospital emergency departments.

“If a child goes into the ER and they are in an initial stage of crisis but don’t need residential care, they can come to us. Refer them to us,” said Ashe.

Wellroot provides a range of programming including preventative services, parent teaching and coaching, and foster care services. The organization focuses on treatment and therapy for an entire family when a child or children experience mental or behavioral health struggles.

“It’s a family issue, community issue, and something we need to tackle together,” explained Ashe. “We need to make the entire community aware children are struggling so we can wrap supports around them.”

Some children are at higher risk for proper mental and behavioral health treatment according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children with disabilities, immigrants and non-English speakers, LGBTQ+, low-income, and adolescents in the juvenile justice system experience heightened risk due to other challenges in conjunction with mental health difficulties. Many emergency departments are not always equipped to address these extenuating circumstances.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also revealed a racial disparity among children experiencing mental health crises. Black children are two times more likely to commit suicide compared to their white counterparts. Native American children report the highest rates of suicide.

Ashe also said families in rural areas in rural areas might struggle to find mental healthcare for children.

However, any child can be susceptible to mental and behavioral health risks according to Jody Baumstein, a clinical therapist for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Strong4Life program.

“If we judge and assume that would never happen here, we’re going to miss some important signs,” said Baumstein.

Some of those signs include a shift in mood or behavior, withdrawal from hobbies or friends, changes in eating patterns, and tense or tearful temperament.

Identifying and processing emotions is key in addressing mental health challenges. Baumstein said parents can help their children navigate feelings at birth, simply by talking to the child.

“Oh, you’re crying – you look sad. I’m smiling, I’m happy to see you,” Baumstein explained. “We’re starting to name that to really build that foundation for them.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Atlanta-based mental health service organization CHRIS 180 is hosting free suicide prevention workshops all month long. Attendees will learn how to have conversations with people who may be thinking about suicide.

Information about the workshops can be found here.

People experiencing a mental health crisis or thoughts about suicide can call the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 9-8-8.

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