Children’s Hospital Colorado declares ‘state of emergency’ for pediatric mental health

Encouraging signage was taped to windows at Children’s Hospital Colorado on April 24, 2020.
Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel Colorado

Children’s Hospital Colorado declared last week that Colorado is experiencing a “state of emergency” for children’s mental health, sounding the alarm about a greater need for mental health resources in the state.

“Our children are experiencing unprecedented levels of pediatric mental health problems,” said Jena Hausmann, president and CEO of Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.

dr. David Brumbaugh, the hospital’s chief physician, said on Tuesday that in his 20 years in practice, he has never seen anything like the demand for pediatric mental health care in the past 15 months, but especially in the past three to four months.

Our inpatient behavior and mental health resources have been fully utilized during the pandemic,” he said. “The supply does not meet the demand.”

Demand for acute behavioral health services is up 90% in 2021 compared to 2019, he said, almost completely doubling. For many weeks in 2021, the main reason for presenting to the emergency department was a suicide attempt, he said.

He burst into tears as he discussed a conversation he had with the father of a high school boy who had committed suicide.

“Our kids are out of resilience,” he said. “Their tank is empty.”

Chief Nursing Officer Pat Givens said the hospital system does not have enough capacity for the number of children in crisis.

“We can’t build enough beds to meet demand,” she said.

Children with behavioral health needs are now placed in medical or surgical beds because of the shortage while waiting for a bed in a behavioral unit, she said. Children as young as eight years old have come to hospital following suicide attempts.

A series of unrelated suicide attempts among Aurora children earlier this month prompted the city and police to launch an awareness campaign.

Children have been dealing with chronic stress for the past year, and as the pandemic draws to a close, they feel extremely overwhelmed, said Dr. Jenna Glover, director of psychology education at Children’s Hospital.

“Now kids are being asked to start back in life and many of them feel behind and completely unprepared to get back to normal functioning, leaving them feeling completely overwhelmed,” she said.

To cope with mental health issues, many children and adolescents turn to substance abuse or develop eating disorders, Glover said.

If kids don’t get treatment now because of a lack of resources, the fear is that they will develop chronic mental health problems that will continue to hinder their development as they grow, she said.

If nothing is done to address the current mental health crisis, Hausmann fears more children will die.

“The increases are happening at a pace that is unprecedented,” she said.

Partners across the state need to work together “on a much higher level of urgency,” she said, calling on the state government to help break through bureaucracy and make this issue a higher priority.

“There’s no lack of energy and dedication to get this done, it’s really about prioritization, flexibility and resources,” she said.

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