Breaking News
More () »

Pandemic pushes Colorado's pediatric mental health care system to the brink

Mental health experts say the isolation caused by the pandemic is especially harmful for kids.

DENVER — Every day, anywhere from 15 to 50 children end up in the emergency department at Children’s Hospital Colorado in some sort of a mental health crisis, a dramatic rise since the beginning of the pandemic, administrators say.

By mid-October, the hospital system said more than 5,000 kids made it to the emergency department for mental healthcare, according to Jason Williams, the director of operations for the hospital’s Pediatric Mental Health Institute.

“Our system was at capacity prior to the pandemic and the pandemic has just made things really, really worse,” Williams said.

“Kids who need the care can’t find the beds either at Children’s Hospital or elsewhere.”

Mental health experts say the isolation caused by the pandemic is especially harmful for kids, who are in the process of developing social skills.

“They’re feeling of isolation, loneliness, not belonging,” said Dr. Carl Clark, the executive director of the Mental Health Center of Denver. “In Denver in particular the suicide rates for young people in particular are twice the national average.”

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

“We’ve paid a lot of attention to ICU beds across the country, it’s still reported, how close are we to running out of those beds, we have not paid that kind of attention to psychiatric beds in our community or even psychiatric capacity,” he said.

RELATED: Denver to expand program that sends mental health professionals to 911 calls

RELATED: Amid national crisis, report puts Colorado at worst in the nation for adult mental health care

He said a recent positive change in public policy might have led to the issue.

“When somebody’s been in the hospital, sometimes they’re ready to leave but not go to home they’re ready to go to a residential treatment facility,” he said. “A very good public policy approach was we wanted children to be in homes not residential settings so there was a big push to make sure that kids had homes to go to and many of the residential facilities that were open for younger people have closed down over the years.”

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

Leaders at Children’s Hospital Colorado are hoping to use the ongoing crisis as momentum for change.

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

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

Zaslow said the state is also working on creating a unified behavioral health administration can unify siloed programs throughout the state that often work on their own.

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

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

Williams, who runs Children’s mental health unit, said until significant changes are made and the pandemic wanes, the problem will keep getting worse.

“I described it at one point as a tsunami that hadn’t hit the shore and we’re waiting for this wave. The tsunami has now hit in multiple ways,” he said.

RELATED: Youngest Coloradans eligible for COVID vaccine are lagging behind other age groups

SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Full Episodes of Next with Kyle Clark

Before You Leave, Check This Out