Texas emergency rooms becoming front lines in the youth mental health crisis
FORT WORTH (CBSNewsTexas.com) — For desperate parents with children suffering from a mental health crisis, help can be hard to find.
A severe shortage in child psychiatrists in Texas has children not getting the help they need early before situations become a crisis.
Therefore, in record numbers across the country, children with mental health complaints are showing up at emergency departments. It's often the only option parents feel they have.
Training more residents in psychiatry is essential, but even psychiatrists say that by itself is not enough to deal with the growing youth mental health crisis. There also needs to be more prevention efforts to reach children before it becomes a crisis.
The CBS News Texas I-Team examined the problem and one North Texas school that's working to be part of the solution.
THE PROBLEM: ER doctor: "We cannot treat them here"
On average every month at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, 330 children with mental health complaints show up at the emergency department. That's up 36% from just three years ago.
"You can see the anguish from these parents," said Dr. Taylor Louden, the Medical Director of Cook Children's Emergency Department. "Basically, they feel like that they're exhausting every resource that they have. Then they end up here and we try to do the best we can, but it's not that slam dunk answer that they really want."
Children coming in with suicidal thoughts are often placed in one of the department's five "safe rooms." In these rooms, electrical outlets are covered, the furniture is too heavy to be thrown, and the bed has restraint points.
The average length of stay in these rooms is eight hours, but some spend days in the room waiting to see a child psychiatrist.
"No one should ever be in an ER longer than a few hours," Louden said. "That means that the system is broken, in my mind."
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, for every 100,000 children there needs to be 47 child psychiatrists. In the U.S., there are 14 professionals per 100,000 children. In Texas, there are even fewer - just 10 child psychiatrists per 100,000 children.
PART OF THE SOLUTION: Oak Cliff school a lab for research-based mental health tools to children
Prioritizing students' mental health has been at the core of Momentous School in Oak Cliff for the past 30 years.
This approach has turned this small Pre-K through 5th grade school into a nationally acclaimed laboratory school where research-based mental health practices are tested and implemented.
Starting at the age of 3, students at the school learn the parts of the brain as well as strategies on how to control emotions and impulses.
"It's teaching them that stress is a part of life, but [also] 'how do I cope with it,'" said the school's director Dr. Jessica Gomez, a licensed psychologist.
Mental health is not a standalone subject at Momentous School; it's considered in everything they do.
The school's hallways are covered with the students' brain projects as well as a sensory wall that students are encouraged to touch. Research shows a sensory experience can help students calm down by activating brain development.
"It's really taking the mental health practices that we've learned in psychology and incorporating them deep," said Gomez. "It's not a technique you pick up off the shelf and say, 'I'm going to do this for 5 minutes.' It's in everything we do."
Momentous School is a private school with no tuition for students. Nearly all of the funding for the school comes from the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, the non-profit organization behind the AT&T Byron Nelson Golf Tournament. The golf tournament alone funds more than 30% of the school's budget.
Nearly 94% percent of the students are Hispanic and almost all qualify for free or reduced lunch. Students from the school go on to graduate high school at a higher rate than their peers and nearly 90% go onto enroll in higher education. However, success at this small private school is measured beyond academics. Students here leave with tools to handle stress and anxiety.
Many of the school's fifth grade student will attend public school next year - faced with all the stresses that come along with middle school.
Emma Barrientos, 11, said she's nervous about heading into middle school but said she feels well prepared to handle stress and potential bullying.
"I've learned how to breath and relax here," she explained. "I've also definitely learned to be able to ask for help now that I'm in a more calming place."
The school develops what's learned in the classrooms into curricula and trainings that have been shared internationally.
Nearly every week, teachers and administrators from across the country come to visit the school. They often sit in observation rooms behind a two-way mirror.
Gomez said she believes schools like Momentous School can play a significant part in helping to solve the mental health crisis.
"There are not enough mental health professionals. That is a fact. I don't know if there ever will be. If I could wave a wound, it would be a thing," she said. "But the other solution I look at is how we can take what a psychologist knows and what mental health professionals know and put that in the hands of anyone. The more we make that knowledge accessible, the better off our communities are going to be."
Momentous School is accepting applications for enrollment in the 2023-24 school year. The school is also hosting an open house on March 25th from 9:00-10:00 a.m.
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