Arkansas Children's CEO says mental illness-related ED visits have jumped 150% during pandemic

Mental health disorders now account for nearly 2.5 percent of emergency department visits at Little Rock-based Arkansas Children's Hospital, a 150 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels, the hospital's CEO, Marcy Doderer, told Becker's in September. 

Ms. Doderer said the statistic currently represents the second greatest challenge facing the hospital following staffing shortages.

"Arkansas Children's is not directly in the business of psychiatric care. We don't own our own psychiatric hospital," she said. "Inpatient facilities are full and they're strapped for space and staff, and the length of time it takes to transfer a child to the appropriate inpatient setting is 50 to 75 percent longer now than it was 18 months ago. And trying to understand how as an industry and as a society we can best address the mental, emotional and behavioral health needs of kids is becoming an urgent topic for solutions."

Across the U.S., up to 1 in 5 children experience a mental disorder in a given year, according to the CDC. The onset of symptoms typically occurs among children 13 and 14 years of age, Ms. Doderer said. The challenges families have faced in gaining access to early assessment, intervention and treatment have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Virtual school isolation and limited access to other kinds of full engagement with peers or friends is really sparking an aggressive response in children with mental disorders," she said. "We're seeing a level of aggression and really uncontrolled behaviors in some children who ended up landing in our emergency room repeatedly because the families are simply looking for respite."

Suicidal ideation is currently the most common mental illness-related occurrence in Arkansas Children's Hospital's emergency department. Pediatric patients with eating disorders, though a smaller population at the hospital, are becoming a troubling statistic.

"I don't know that the science is yet there as to why the pandemic is triggering a greater number of children with eating disorders," Ms. Doderer said. "Intense inpatient residential treatment for eating disorders is not available in the state of Arkansas. So that's one of the services we're evaluating [to see if] we can bring it back to the state."

Ms. Doderer said one of her top goals as CEO over the next year is to expand the hospital's partnerships.

"We're working on a framework of partnership with other healthcare institutions, as well as other agencies, private or governmental, that have an interest in child health and well-being," she said. "We have big issues around obesity, food insecurity, infant mortality, vaccination rates and mental health services. And again, Arkansas Children's is not positioned, nor should we be, to be the full solution provider for those major health issues. So partnership is the other big thing on my mind for this year."

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