Opinion: Don't let mental health system fail our children
My work has given me the opportunity to speak to hundreds of Oregonians about their experience within the state's mental health system during the COVID-19 pandemic. I regularly hear the heartbreaking, frustrating stories from patients and their loved ones, and all seem to have one thing in common: There is a lack of psychiatric services and community resources available for those who are struggling with mental illness and addiction.
The pandemic has exposed the extent of the mental health crisis for nearly every family. During the pandemic, four in ten adults reported experiencing severe anxiety or depression but services for those in need of critical care did not expand to meet the need. Rates of suicidal ideation are highest among youth, especially LGBTQ+ youth. According to Mental Health America, in September 2020, more than half of 11- to 17-year-olds reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than half or nearly every day of the previous two weeks. From January to September 2020, nearly 78,000 youth reported experiencing frequent suicidal ideation, including nearly 28,000 LGBTQ+ youth.
If a child is in crisis, a parent or guardian has three options. They can desperately wait to admit their child to one of Oregon's acute inpatient adolescent beds — there are fewer than 40. These beds are regularly at capacity, and a child could wait weeks to be admitted.
Another option is to send the child to the emergency room, where doctors and nurses — through no fault of their own — are ill-equipped and untrained to properly stabilize youth in crisis. Often, patients are traumatically and physically restrained while boarded in the emergency room.
The last option is to send their child out of state for treatment, away from friends and family. These are the only options, and the system provides family and loved ones minimal support and guidance. Imagine your child being given a cancer diagnosis and then being forced to wait for six to eight days until their care could get underway.
There is no single solution that would solve the state's mental health crisis, but one form of help has been offered. A 100-bed inpatient psychiatric facility has been proposed, which would dedicate 20 beds to an acute adolescent program. This privately funded facility would also offer acute adult psychiatric services and while also increasing the state's inpatient adolescent bed capacity by 50%.
Unfortunately, the proposed facility has been met with opposition by powerful special interests who want to maintain the current system as-is, forcing parents and families to board their children in emergency rooms or send them hundreds of miles away for treatment.
Even if these special interests offer an alternative proposal, it would likely cost the state billions of dollars, take years to implement and currently lacks the political willpower to successfully see through.
We must begin welcoming new approaches to care, regardless of our politics and vested interest in the status quo. The mental health system is failing thousands of children who are unable to access adequate and appropriate mental health care.
Oregonians – especially our kids – deserve ample access to a continuum of services across the mental health spectrum, from basic outpatient services to intensive inpatient and residential treatment programs.
On April 15, the Oregon Health Authority will host a hearing on the proposed facility. I will speak out in favor, asking our state leaders to grant a certificate of need and approve the hospital.
Sheila Hamilton of Northwest Portland is a journalist and author of "All the Things We Never Knew."
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