Every night that Dr. Jennifer Hoffmann works as an attending physician in the pediatric ER, she says, at least one child comes in with a mental or behavioral health emergency. Over the span of her career, she’s seen the number of young people needing help grow enormously.
“The most common problems that I see are children with suicidal thoughts or children with severe behavior problems, where they may be a risk of harm to themselves or others,” said Hoffmann, who works at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “We’re also seeing younger children, especially since the pandemic started. Children as young as 8, 9 or 10 years old are coming to the emergency department with mental health concerns.
“It’s just mind-blowing.”
ER staffers may be able to stabilize a child in a mental health care crisis, but research has shown that timely follow-up with a provider is key to their success long-term. Unfortunately, there just doesn’t seem to be enough of it, according to a new study co-authored by Hoffmann. Without the proper follow-up, these children too often wound up back in the ER.
For their study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, Hoffmann and her co-authors looked at records for more than 28,000 children ages 6 to 17 who were enrolled in Medicaid and had at least one trip to the emergency department between January 2018 and June 2019. They found that less than a third of the children had the benefit of an outpatient mental health visit within seven days of being discharged from the ER. A little more than 55% had a follow-up within 30 days.
Research has shown that follow-up with a mental health care provider lowers a person’s suicide risk, raises the chances that they will take their prescription medicine and decreases the chances that they will make repeated trips to the ER.
The new study found that without a follow-up, more than a quarter of the children had to go back to the ER for additional mental health care within six months of their initial visit.
“The emergency department is a safety net. It’s always open, but there’s limited extent to the types of mental health services we can provide in that setting,” Hoffmann said. “This really speaks to inadequate access to services that these kids need.”
This dynamic can be “devastating” for parents and emergency department staff alike, she said.
“We know what a child needs, but we’re just not able to schedule follow-up due to shortages among the mental health profession. They’re widespread across the US,” she said.
A lack of professional help is a problem for many children. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 5 children had a mental health disorder, but only about 20% got care from a mental health provider.
Children’s mental health has become such a concern in the US that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in 2021.
Hoffmann’s study found that Black children fared worse than their peers. They were 10% less likely to have timely follow-up than White children – “which is very concerning, given that there are many disparities in access to care in our mental health system,” Hoffmann said.
The study can’t pinpoint why there is this racial disparity, but Hoffmann thinks there may be a few factors at play.
Black children are more likely to live in neighborhoods that have shortages of mental health professionals. There is also limited diversity among the mental health work force. Studies show that nearly 84% of psychologists are White, as are nearly 65% of counselors and more than 60% of social workers. And Black children more often rely on school-based mental health services, studies show.
Although the number of school counselors has been increasing over the years, few schools meet the National Association of School Psychologists’ recommended ratio of one school psychologist to 500 students. The national ratio for the 2021-22 school year was 1,127 to 1, the association found.
The new study found that the children who did not have mental health help before their ER visits had the most difficulty finding timely care afterward.
Dr. Toni Gross, chief of the Emergency Department at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said she wasn’t entirely surprised by the study findings. Her hospital’s beds for with mental health concerns are “always busy,” she said.
“I’m well aware of the fact that we need more providers for these services. We deal with it every day,” said Gross, who was not involved in the new research.
The lack of providers who can do follow-up is a real source of concern. It’s not ideal to hand a phone number to a parent and hope they can arrange care, she said. It often takes weeks or even months to get a first appointment with a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
“It leaves a lot of us feeling like we wish we could do more,” Gross said. “When you always leave asking yourself at the end of the day, ‘did I really do what I set out to do, and that is to help people,’ it’s one of our biggest frustrations, and it may be one of the biggest reasons people in my group of physicians feel burnout.”
Like many children’s hospitals, hers has an active partnership with local school health programs that can provide some mental health care.
Hoffmann said that the amount of support varies by emergency department. Lurie has 24/7 coverage by mental health workers who can do an evaluation and provide recommendations for appropriate care, but not all areas do. For example, many rural emergency rooms don’t have pediatric mental health providers and may have few resources in the community, if any.
Several US counties have no practicing child and adolescent psychiatrists. Primary care physicians can help, but some patients would benefit from more specialized care, Hoffmann said.
President Joe Biden’s administration announced in August that plans to make it easier for millions of children to get access to mental health services by allowing schools to use Medicaid dollars to hire additional school counselors and social workers. He even mentioned the issue in his State of the Union address Tuesday.
But even more will need to be done. Hoffmann hopes her study will prompt policy-makers to invest more so children can access care no matter where they live. Investing in telehealth could also bridge the gap, she said, as would increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for mental health services and more funding to pay for people to train to work with children as a mental health professional.
In a commentary published alongside the new study, the authors say their research shows that the US “is not meeting the behavioral health needs of our young people.”
“EDs are the last stop when all else has failed, and they, too, lack the resources to support, or even discharge, these patients,” the commentary says.
It points out that research has found this lack of access as far back as 2005.
“This new analysis adds to the overwhelming evidence that there is an urgent need for a dramatic change in our pediatric mental health care system,” the commentary says. “We believe it is time for a ‘child mental health moonshot,’ and call on the field and its funders to come together to launch the next wave of bold mental health research, for the benefit of these children and their families who so desperately need our support.”