Why are Vermont kids waiting days for emergency mental health care?

Published: Apr. 22, 2021 at 5:16 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The number of children seeking mental health treatment is growing and so is the backlog of those waiting for care in emergency rooms. And the pandemic has made the situation worse.

More kids, most between the ages of 11 and 17, are voluntarily seeking help in Vermont’s mental health system.

“We have been seeing an increase in depression and anxiety and even suicidal concerns among our youth even before the pandemic hit, especially among our LGBTQ youth and Black, Indigenous and youth of color,” said Laurel Omland, the director of the Child, Adolescent and Family Unit for the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

However, some mental health facilities just don’t have the capacity or the staff to take additional patients.

Kids seeking care and their parents end up waiting in emergency rooms, an overwhelming setting for kids experiencing a mental health crisis.

Parents in front of lawmakers on Thursday raised the red flag.

“On one visit, we waited there for nearly four full days. On another visit, we waited for three days,” said Robyn Freedner-Maguire, a parent.

The number of kids waiting fluctuates but on average it has increased from one a day in July 2020 to five a day last month. They’re waiting an average of more than three days.

Experts say stress, isolation, remote learning and seasonal factors are contributing to the higher numbers.

And there are workforce challenges, as there are some 500 open positions in Vermont’s community health centers.

Lawmakers call this situation a crisis.

“One of the issues is that there’s a chronic underfunding of our mental health system,” said Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg.

Lippert is advocating for more funding of community health centers so they can offer more mental health care.

Experts say it’s a good place to start.

“Often, for many of these children, intense community-based services could meet their needs and when we have vacancies, that is a challenge,” Omland said.

Even after the pandemic, those shortages will be an issue.

Lawmakers are considering workforce recruitment initiatives, recognizing licenses granted in other states and working with the state colleges to develop more caregivers.

Until the state finds a solution, lawmakers say everyone needs to be at the table in diverting kids from those long waits in the ER.

“That’s actually doing harm rather than help,” Lippert said, “and that’s not acceptable.”

Several other programs have shown promise. Psychiatric Urgent Care for Kids in Bennington has diverted more than 30% of kids away from the emergency room.

The state could consider a similar model on the statewide level.

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