With No Options, Suicidal Teens Sleep in Emergency Rooms

Increasing demand for inpatient services and declining capacity shut at-risk adolescents out
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 9, 2022 5:17 PM CDT
With No Options, Suicidal Teens Sleep in Emergency Rooms
Suicidal teenagers are having to wait in hospital emergency rooms for weeks for inpatient care.   (Getty/MJFelt)

Even before the coronavirus arrived, mental health disorders were increasing among the nation's adolescents, and the options for residential treatment care were declining. The pandemic compounded the problem, the New York Times reports. "Demand went up, supply went down," says Lisette Burton of the Association of Children’s Residential and Community Services, a nonprofit advocacy group. "Now we're in full-blown crisis." The crisis can be witnessed in hospital emergency rooms, where teenagers sleep night after night, often with their family watching over them, while they wait for a spot to open up in inpatient mental health care.

When a 15-year-old girl who'd already tried to kill herself once was brought to an emergency room at Boston Children’s Hospital, a doctor said it wasn't safe to her to be home. The safest place would be an inpatient treatment center, where she could participate in individual and group therapy. The calmer setting helps at-risk teenagers transition back to their lives, the doctor said. But there was no room at such places in the area, and the hospital's emergency department already was housing 15 young people in the same situation. They were sleeping in exam rooms, per the Times. So the 15-year-old and her parents decided to stay in emergency. It was almost a month before a spot in a treatment center became available.

A combination of factors brought this about, including labor shortages and policy changes that didn't account for an increased need for care. There was a 60% rise in the number of teenagers who reported a major depressive episode between 2007 and 2019. The CDC reports that suicide rates for the age group also went up almost 60% between 2007 and 2018. And the number of residential treatment centers for those under age 18 has dropped. Now, many at-risk young people have nowhere to go. A 12-year-old boy in Colorado fighting suicidal urges knew he needed inpatient treatment. "So can I start tomorrow?" he asked his mother. Instead, they went home to wait. His mother removed all knives and medicine and watched her boy around the clock for 16 days until a center had room for him. "It was the scariest two weeks of my life," she said. (More teen suicide stories.)

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