While school counselors do their best to help students struggling with mental-health problems, some need more intensive professional help. Lately, agencies providing that help have stepped up capacity to meet an increasing need.
At Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, administrators just moved the children and adolescent day program, where young people come in each day and go home at night, to a new location. The move allowed Pine Rest to double the number of patients it can treat from 12 to 24. There also is talk of adding a 26-bed inpatient unit there, that would serve children and adolescents during the school year and adults in the summer.
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And at Forest View Psychiatric Hospital, nine child/adolescent beds recently were added, expanding its capacity to as many as 39 inpatients in that age group.
The expansions reflect an increased demand for psychiatric services, agency professionals say.
For young clients of Pine Rest, getting an appointment or finding a therapist or psychiatrist is tough lately, admits Sarah Jongsma, case manager in the adolescent partial program, which admits children and teens for intensive daytime therapy.
“We’re booking out three or four months,” Jongsma said. “Imagine a parent calling in and getting that information.”
Finding a child psychiatrist “has always been an issue,” Jongsma said, as there aren’t as many compared to those for adults. Still, difficulty getting care, or even an appointment to be evaluated, is on the rise. Said Jongsma, “A lot of primary care physicians and pediatricians are not willing to see those kids — they really want them seen by a psychiatrist.”
It could be the need for particularly close monitoring of medications, Jongsma supposed, but “for whatever reason, primary care taking a step back has increased.” As a result, she said, the push for more intensive outpatient treatment has increased over the last few years.
Shining a Light
There is an upside to the trend, however, inasmuch as it indicates a more accepting attitude toward adolescent mental health, said Jessica Mariano, trauma program coordinator at Forest View. She noted public efforts such as the Be Nice campaign and the Stomp Out Stigma 5K Walk for Mental Health.
“We’re hearing about it and it’s becoming more noticeable in the media and with lay people,” Mariano said. “We are getting it out there more. We don’t want it to be this silent thing people have to go through.”
Still, it often is just that. Adolescence can be a scary time to begin with, she noted, and struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts only compound the fear.
“They’re not into the state of their development where they know the resources available to them,” Mariano said. “A lot of times they feel very isolated and alone, not knowing where to turn or who to talk to.
“It can be very scary. They don’t know who else is like them and who is going through similar experiences.”
That can make it hard to admit you’re having a problem, at an age when fitting in feels so important, she added: “There’s a hesitation of ‘Is this normal across my peer group?’“
Students might feel less afraid of sharing their problems if they knew what others are going through.
Jongsma of Pine Rest said she sees more young people meeting the criteria for treatment, based on several factors. Those include:
- depression impairing daily functioning;
- avoiding school and social withdrawal due to family stress or bullying;
- passive suicidal thoughts;
- self-harm, which she said has “increased dramatically.”
“When I started in 2004, I would say one in two patients were cutters. Now it’s nine out of 10. When you have a kid who has not tried self-harm, that’s a surprise.”
Just Too Much
What’s behind all the troubles? In a phrase, “too much,” Jongsma said.
“I think, from when I was in high school to today, life was very different,” Jongsma said. “Social media and the amount of bullying kids have to deal with, plus the expectations at school. We have kids talking about having three to four hours of homework a night, on top of sports and other extracurricular activities. They’re overwhelmed.
“It’s too much for people in their 20s to manage and we’re expecting children to manage. It’s too much.”
For a student sinking into depression, a certain listlessness can be a warning sign.
“It’s kind of losing a luster for life,” Mariano said. “They’re losing interest in normal activities, they’re not reaching out to friends. If they have a hobby, they’re not enjoying it anymore.”
It can be crucial to talk to a troubled young person before life feels like too much, she added. A parent can help an adolescent break through the fearful silence, and Forest View offers a free assessment and referral service if they don’t want to do it alone, she said.
“Starting the conversation is key,” Mariano said. “The more normal you make it to talk about it, it makes it easier … so they know it doesn’t have to be this insurmountable task.”