According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among teenagers rose almost 60% from 2007 to 2018.
The CDC and other federal agencies describe a crisis that includes surging mental health disorders among the country’s young. For example, major depressive episodes in teenagers rose 47% during the 12-year period from 2007 to 2019.
A recently published report indicated that “across the country, hospital emergency departments have become boarding wards for teenagers who pose too great a risk to themselves or others to go home. They have nowhere else to go. Even as the crisis has intensified, the medical system has failed to keep up, and options for inpatient and intensive outpatient psychiatric treatment have eroded sharply.”
The report noted that the number of residential treatment facilities for people under the age of 18 fell to 592 in 2020 from 848 in 2012, a 30% decline, according to the most recent federal government survey.
With inpatient psychiatric services reportedly in short supply, teenagers aren’t receiving the care they need.
“These young people are profoundly struggling,” said Carter Barnhart, CEO of Charlie Health, which provides treatment programs for teens, young adults, and families navigating mental health challenges. “Many have been recently discharged from a hospital and need outpatient therapy more than once a week.”
Charlie Health partners with key community stakeholders like hospitals, insurance companies, schools, and local therapists to provide treatment for clients who require more than weekly individual therapy sessions or who need support transitioning back into a home and school environment following hospital-based treatment.
Barnhart remains convinced that such partnerships are critical in the battle to save teenagers battling mental health challenges.
“The situation is dire,” Barnhart said in an email. “We need a new approach to tackle the mental health crisis. We need to leverage technology that expands access without sacrificing high-quality care. Our clinical program is designed to foster sustainable healing and serve youth and families in critical need across the country.”
Barnhart said Charlie Health has set out on a mission to reimagine how high-acuity care is delivered to teens and young adults, particularly those in rural populations. She said they are building the world’s first infinitely scalable, virtual-first mental health practice.
In its 2021 declaration of a national emergency for children’s mental health, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cited that “childhood mental health concerns and suicide have increased for at least a decade.”
To increase support for pediatricians and families, the AAP suggested several action steps, including increased use of telemedicine, accelerating the provision of some mental health services in primary care settings, and funding community-based systems that can connect families to treatment resources.
“Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program, along with others in the field of eating disorders, have utilized many of these tools to expand access to care and provide the appropriate level of support,” said Dr. Anna Tanner, vice president for the Department of Child and Adolescent Medicine at Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program.
“For teens and parents, it is important to know that this mental health crisis is real and that mental health concerns can get better with proper treatment and support. There are no simple solutions when it comes to mental illness. Patients with mental health concerns need professional support.”
Tanner noted that during COVID, many patients and families waited to ask for help. She stated that some mental health conditions, such as eating disorders, may cause severe and potentially irreversible medical complications.
“If you are struggling, or someone you know is struggling, reach out early on to local systems to learn about community resources,” Tanner said. “Primary care providers can often provide some support, especially in accessing local resources and possibly initiating medications. Many children’s organizations are stepping in to provide additional educational and resource support for primary care providers on these issues. Additionally, some patients and families may be able to access care through telemedicine even if local resources are limited.”
She concluded that ongoing advocacy for mental health parity remains a critical step in addressing these care shortfalls.
“Additionally, we must address our workforce challenges and increase the integration of mental health care into primary care settings,” Tanner said. “These two efforts will be significant in funding and education to better meet the challenges ahead.”