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Kids struggling with mental health stuck waiting longer for help in the ER

Posted at 5:55 AM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-24 08:14:02-05

(WXYZ) — While we may be moving past the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health burdens brought on by the coronavirus are still with us.

According to a study in JAMA Pediatrics, 1 in 4 children are struggling with depression and 1 in 5 are battling anxiety.

When kids and their families seek treatment in a crisis, they often find the healthcare system doesn't have the resources to provide adequate care, and kids are literally left waiting for help.

McKenna Duman, a senior at Community High School in Ann Arbor, said she was first diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in the third grade.

"It was really affecting my life a lot because I was worrying about everything," McKenna said.

The intrusive thoughts made functioning difficult for McKenna. But she's lucky, she never had to seek crisis care for her anxiety or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

However, kids who do need crisis care for thoughts of suicide, depression, impulse control anxiety or ADHD often find the healthcare system isn't ready.

"One in five kids will spend more than 12 hours in the emergency department," Dr. Alex Janke, from the University of Michigan said.

About one in 20 kids will spend more than a day waiting to be placed in an inpatient bed or intensive outpatient care.

"So their long wait in the emergency department represents a bottleneck in the system. It is hard to place those children in the safest next step," Janke said.

Many of these kids are suicidal or engaged in self-harm, so sending them home may be unsafe. Janke says every step in the mental health care system for children is straining under the weight.

He says there are not enough pediatric inpatient hospital beds, not enough pediatric providers, and even if you have care, it may not be available in times of crisis like overnight or weekends, so they are left waiting in the ER.

"You may have a good relationship with a psychiatrist or a social worker, but the system isn't set up so that you can reach those resources 24/7," he said.

So what is the solution? Fixing the healthcare workforce problem is a key first step, according to Janke. Another is changing a health system that de-incentivizing pediatric care.

"Hospitals shutting down pediatric units because they're not profitable. That is a health policy problem that we need to fix. That is a financing problem," he said.

Treating kids with mental health struggles early is vital to improving outcomes. McKenna says her anxiety and obsessiveness are under control thanks to supportive parents and therapy.

"That was a huge help. I got on medication that was also a huge help," McKenna said.

The problems with pediatric ER wait times is a sign of deeper issues with the healthcare system, and kids are paying the price, especially when you compare wait times for kids seeking mental health care to peers being treated for physical health issues.

Kids with broken arms or respiratory challenges are often in and out of the ER in 4-5 hours while peers seeking care for psychiatric issues are left in limbo.