WHITMAN, Mass. — Boston 25 News continues to examine the crisis in youth mental health in our series Boston 25 Gets Real about Kids and Mental Health. In this installment, anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh takes a look at how the crisis playing out in hospitals across Massachusetts.
She found children and the families who go to emergency rooms in desperate need can end up stuck there for days, if not weeks, waiting for help.
‘IT WAS CHAOS’ A WHITMAN BOY’S JOURNEY
The pandemic, the shutdown and remote learning sent 13-year-old ‘Aiden’ into a tailspin.
“It was chaos,” said Whitman mother Rebecca Losee. “His world was upended with services.”
Losee said Aiden has autism, developmental delays and struggles with social cues. At the beginning of the pandemic, cut off from school, therapy and routine, the Whitman eighth grader was getting increasingly sad and aggressive.
Losee said she was trying everything she knew to help him.
“Anything that you can think of that would help children with autism or Aiden in general,” she said. “It just wasn’t enough.”
The day came in February 2021 when Losee felt she could no longer keep Aiden safe at home.
“That decision was one of the hardest I’ve had to do,” Losee told Kavanaugh. “Kind of broke me a bit, and also his sister.”
Broken, they went off to the emergency room in Brockton, desperate for help. Aiden was stuck in the emergency room, ‘boarding’ as it’s called from February 10 until March 19. Losee said her son was treated well, but he needed a psychiatric placement.
“There’s just not enough beds. There’s not enough services when one reaches that level of care that they need. Especially for children, there’s less beds,” Losee said.
And his special needs require a specialized unit and Losee said there are even fewer of those.
“He was really upset, sad, missing home, wanting to know, ‘What’s going on? Where am I going? When am leaving?’” Losee said. “No one had answers.”
THE RACE TO MEET THIS DEMAND IN MASS.
According to Massachusetts Department of Mental Health statistics, in March 2019, the state saw 66 total boarders reported to DMH at 96 hours or more, including 41 pediatric.
Two years later, in March 2021, there were 687 total boarders reported to DMH after boarding for 60 hours or more, including 332 pediatric. Though there were some changes in data collection during this time, the increase is stark.
The state is tracking this and working to get more resources and services.
In July, the Baker administration announced funding earmarked to address the boarding crisis. In a news release, the state said it would dedicate “$31 million for inpatient psychiatric acute facilities, both free-standing and in general hospitals. This investment will help bridge a significant staffing gap which is resulting in many individuals not being able to access licensed psychiatric beds and therefore spending extensive periods of time in emergency rooms.”
In an email, DMH told Boston 25 News that as of September 15, 2021, a total of 136 new inpatient psychiatric beds, including 42 for children, have opened and 106 more are planned for 2021. Of the 106 remaining to open in 2021, 40 beds will be for children and adolescents. They will be in Plymouth, Middleborough, Waltham, Webster, Attleboro, Devens and Dedham. The agency added that in 2022 and beyond, another 259 beds are proposed to open, including 61 beds for children and adolescents. These beds will be in Somerville, Cambridge, Holyoke, Hyannis, Dartmouth and Boston.
There is a race to this meet demand. In August, the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association reported, “more than 500 behavioral health patients, including 74 children, were ‘boarded’ in Massachusetts hospital emergency rooms” during the last week of a July.
MORE: Boston 25 Gets Real
FILLING THE GAP
“It’s a difficult process. And if you’re getting to a point where you need to bring your child to the emergency room, you are really looking for assistance,” Katelyn Leary said.
Leary is a regional supervisor for Youth Villages, which offers intensive in-home services to families boarding in emergency rooms.
They did not work with the Losee family, but theirs is a familiar story to the Woburn-based organization.
“Because the youth are becoming stuck in the emergency rooms, this allows us to actually go in and meet them where they’re at, not waiting for months, Leary said.
Youth Villages is of the programs trying to fill the gap in the time families are waiting for services by establishing services right in the home right away.
Typically, the team will help a family develop a plan to stabilize and find treatment. It’s a short-term solution to get kids out of crisis as the search for services continues.
Dr. Jacque Cutillo, the assistant clinical director of Youth Villages, said there’s simply a lack of child-focused providers, magnified during the pandemic as children faced new struggles.
“An increase in isolation, you’re also seeing an increase in depression and increase in anxiety and increase in just overwhelmingly loneliness,” Cutillo said. “...just an overwhelming sense of like a black cloud over them.”
The Youth Villages program now has partnerships with about a dozen hospitals in central Massachusetts and the south shore and they hope to create partnerships with more. Youth Villages says currently their services are offered at no cost to families.
A PLEA FOR HELP
Like Rebecca Losee’s son, so many go to the emergency room when all else fails.
After nearly five weeks, an appropriate placement was found for Aiden. So many others continue to wait, right now.
“What would you say to the people in charge that can make a difference here systemically,” Kavanaugh asked.
“There’s no excuse for it. There’s no excuse for any of it,” Losee said. “These are children. They didn’t choose these lives. It shouldn’t have been that much of a fight to get someone help.”
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