Emergency departments are full across the state of Colorado — not because of a rise in COVID-19 cases, but rather, a different pandemic that’s sweeping the nation’s youth.
The youth mental health crisis, which has surged throughout the coronavirus pandemic, has reached new heights as Colorado children are attempting suicide and arriving in emergency rooms at a rapid rate.
According to a Children’s Hospital Colorado panel of experts, hospital beds are full and parents are being forced to seek treatment for their children in other states.
The hospital system, whose main medical campus is in Aurora and has branches in Colorado Springs, Broomfield, and Highland’s Ranch, says the most common reason children are arriving in its emergency department is a suicide attempt.
In April, Children’s reported a 90% increase in mental health emergency visits compared to April 2019.
In Colorado Springs, the hospital experienced a 145% increase in youth behavioral health visits since January in comparison to 2020. And Aurora’s 52-bed emergency department has been overrun with kids in a mental health crisis, with transport teams seeing three or four kids each week who have just tried to kill themselves.
An Unprecedented Crisis
Children’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Brumbaugh, who has practiced medicine for more than 20 years, said that the demand for children’s mental health care over the last 15 months is unlike anything he’s ever seen in his career.
“Our kids have run out of resilience – their tanks are empty,” Brumbaugh said through tears. “That’s where we are now as a system and as a state.”
From January to April 2021, youth behavioral health visits in emergency departments across the hospital system have increased more than 70 percent over the same time period in 2019.
“Our inpatient behavioral health and mental health resources have been completely tapped during the pandemic,” Brumbaugh said. “Those beds have all been full. The supply has not met the demand.”
Children’s CEO Jena Hausmann declared the state of emergency Tuesday during a virtual roundtable event with reporters. Hausmann said that “the sheer magnitude of the situation warrants a different level of support” and hoped that the declaration would help “the state of Colorado, our community partners, and all of us come together with a different level of priority focus and a different level of resources to address this crisis.”
According to Children’s, suicide is now the leading cause of death for children in Colorado, with kids as young as 8 years old attempting to take their own lives.
Experts Ask for Help
While all four campuses have plans to add more beds, increase in-patient psychiatric rooms, and develop partial hospitalization programs, none of the additions will solve the mental health crisis, which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19.
“We can’t depend on building beds to get us out of it,” said Dr. Mike DiStefano, Chief Medical Officer for Children’s southern region based in Colorado Springs. “If we are building acute beds, we are losing the battle against suicide and behavioral health problems with our teens. We need to be intervening prior to the crisis.”
The hospital, which relies on donations to make improvements, is hoping that a “fair amount” of the $3.9 billion that Colorado is expected to receive under President Joe Biden‘s American Rescue Plan will be used to address pediatric mental health. Colorado lawmakers have proposed spending from $400 million to $500 million of the federal aid on mental health.