Psychiatrists and pediatricians in Rhode Island have declared a state of emergency regarding the mental health of children and adolescents.
The Rhode Island Council for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (RICCAP) and the Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (RIAAP) issued the declaration, with the support of Hasbro Children’s Hospital and Bradley Hospital.
Hospitals have seen a significant uptick in the rates of mental health issues among children, teens, and their families in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the issue to a near-breaking point for the state’s health professionals.
“The pandemic has intensified this crisis: we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts,” reads the declaration.
The increasing prevalence of mental health problems among children and adolescents has been a concern for health professionals for more than a decade. The rate of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020. In 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10 and 24.
“Every level of the system is saturated with long waiting lists and patients’ families are having trouble getting access to care. And so, a number of children and adolescents presenting to the emergency department who don’t have access to treatment in the community or who are in such extreme crisis that they need hospital-level care for safety—for things like suicide attempts or severe aggression,” said RICCAP Immediate Past President Elizabeth Lowenhaupt, MD, who is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Bradley Hospital.
Health professionals are using the declaration to call on policymakers to increase state funding so that families can access evidence-based mental health screening, diagnosis, and treatment, with a particular focus on under-resourced populations.
“One of our biggest hopes is to raise awareness, but on a bigger level, we want to be interacting more directly with our state officials about the importance of children’s behavioral health. We’re really hoping that our state government will look to psychiatric and children’s behavioral health professionals to develop policies and procedures and new programs here,” Lowenhaupt said.
The Rhode Island Psychological Association (RIPA) says it will advocate for public policy that promotes accessible, quality healthcare, and stress the importance of behavioral health in the healthcare system.
“If we are included and given the resources needed, we will advocate with insurers to include comprehensive behavioral health services in their benefits, and for the unique value that including psychologists and psychological science in our health care services would bring to our healthcare system,” said Peter Oppenheimer, Ph.D., chairman of RIPA’s legislative committee.
Oppenheimer also believes that the first intervention needed is increased reimbursement for behavioral health services.
“We have bills in the General Assembly that would do that: S2471 and H8157. We had a similar bill in last year that passed the Senate but went nowhere in the House,” Oppenheimer said. “Reimbursement is so low that the future of quality and accessible care is in peril. If this is not addressed, nothing else is going to really help for long.”