This is a crisis. It is not how it’s always been. It is not kids being kids. It’s not media hype or ARPA money grabs. It is a crisis.

Children are suffering. Their access to mental health resources is glaringly lacking. And they’re traveling in droves to emergency rooms that serve as holding tanks where they wait, often for weeks, without proper mental health care, to gain access to a bed in a psychiatric facility.

Sometimes, the stay in the mental health ward is far shorter than the ER visit, as administrators try to move children along to make room for another, and insurance companies cut off benefits after just days or a couple of weeks.

Late last month the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued an urgent warning declaring the mental health crisis among children, statistically tied to the pandemic, so dire that it has become a national emergency.

“We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, their communities, and all of our futures,” the group representing more than 77,000 physicians and 200 children’s hospitals declared.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020 the percentage of emergency department visits for mental health crises rose by 31% for those aged 12 to 17, compared with 2019, and 24% for children between the ages of 5 and 11.

Let that sink in: 5-year-olds.

On Beacon Hill last week, state senators were at work reviewing a proposal that would speak to the onslaught of need by drawing more behavioral health professionals into the fold and requiring insurers to be more responsive.

The legislation is not specific to young people, but most certainly would help put some fingers in the dike to quell the flood of need.

Under the proposal, the window of time for approval of new clinicians would be compressed, allowing them to practice more quickly. Additionally, financing same-day care would become a requirement.

Lawmakers identified these two areas as major financial barriers for those seeking services. And finances aside, when a child expresses suicidal ideation or makes an attempt, there is no time to wait. But a long stay in an emergency room won’t go far to solve the problem.

Another key element of the Senate proposal, which will be taken up again this week, is integrating behavioral health and primary care by requiring insurers to cover annual mental health exams. That’s a concept that has been a long time coming.

“The cornerstone of this legislation is that mental health is just as important as a person’s physical health,” Statehouse reporter Christian Wade quoted Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, one of the bill’s main architects, as saying.

Coupled with other efforts moving through the Legislature, this proposal has the potential to go a long way toward providing relief for afflicted young people.

Two weeks ago, Wade wrote, the House approved a plan to spend $3.82 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds and surplus revenue that would divert $250 million specifically for behavioral health programs. And a Senate plan includes a proposal to divert $400 million in ARPA funds to mental health services and behavioral health providers.

This money would mean more available professionals for both in- and outpatient programs. It would mean more beds. In fact, in the Senate proposal alone, $10 million would go to the creation of new mental health acute care beds with a focus on children and underserved communities.

Interestingly, the Senate unanimously approved a similar bill in February 2020. The measure was never taken up with the House.

What a shame. Let’s not drop the ball again.

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