Allie Cohen Opinion: Vermont’s Youth Mental Health Crisis

This comment is from Allie Cohen of South Burlington. She is a third-year social work student at the University of Vermont.

The state of Vermont is in a serious mental health crisis. Pediatric inpatient floors, such as those at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, are forced to admit pediatric psychiatric patients, leaving little room for other sick children who need admission.

This crisis stems directly from the shortage of inpatient pediatric psychiatry units in Vermont.

Between 2012 and 2018, there was an impressive 34.6% increase in the prevalence of mental illness among young people in the US. Among these, eating disorders, anxiety and depression witnessed the most alarming spikes at 96%, 95% and 73% respectively.

As a result of bed shortages, children often find themselves spending multiple nights in emergency departments, a situation that exacerbates, rather than alleviates, their mental health problems. Urgent action is needed to establish and adequately staff more mental health facilities designed specifically for young people.

Currently, there are two main areas where a child can be admitted.

Closer to Vermont’s population centers is the Northeastern Family Institute, also known as NFI Vermont. NFI operates five different facilities to place children. First, The Village House has a capacity of just three people between the ages of 17 and 22, with an average stay of about a year and a half. The rotation of hospitalized patients is infrequent. Another facility, the DBT House, houses four women between the ages of 13 and 17 for 12-18 months. The remaining three houses follow similar patterns to the previous examples.

However, NFI’s abbreviated emergency facility, which houses children for 7-10 days, can only accommodate six people. In 2022, there were 114,757 children living in Vermont. It is very doubtful that these houses, with capacities ranging from three to eight people, are sufficient to cover the needs of the population.

If guardians choose to explore options outside of Burlington, the only other facility available is the Brattleboro Retreat, located in Brattleboro. This institution offers two programs for hospitalized youth.

The first, the Abigail Rockwell Childrens Center, caters to people between the ages of 6 and 15, with an average stay of approximately 30-60 days. Like NFI, this program can accommodate only eight children. Their second program, the Children’s Inpatient Program, accepts ages 5-12 for 8-10 days.

If each program mentioned reaches its maximum capacity, a total of 43 young people will be admitted. However, with approximately 114,000 children in Vermont, the problem is glaringly obvious: Vermont urgently requires additional programs to address the growing need for mental health issues among children.

If you’re worried about the economy, rest assured that more psychiatric units are a good thing. In 2010, Dobson and DaVanzo published a report titled “The Economic Impact of Inpatient Psychiatric Facilities: A National and State-Level Analysis,” which was presented at the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems.

The authors claim that psychiatric units across the country have made a significant positive contribution to the economy.

According to their findings, these units directly employ approximately 223,000 people, resulting in a total employment impact of more than 477,000 jobs. For every job created by inpatient psychiatric facilities, 2.14 additional jobs are created within the national labor market.

Additionally, the report indicates direct employee compensation of $11.1 billion for inpatient psychiatric facilities, equal to $21.4 billion in total employee compensation. Although this data goes back 14 years, it is reasonable to assume that the total number of jobs created by psychiatric facilities has continued to increase.

The establishment of more pediatric psychiatric units would have a profound impact, especially on patients. These facilities will provide a safe haven away from home, addressing the shortage of specialist care. For caregivers, health professionals and social workers, there will be a significant reduction in worry and stress. Guardians can be confident that appropriate environments are available for their children if needed.

Overall, the mental health crisis in Vermont, especially regarding pediatric psychiatric care, requires urgent attention and action.

Current facilities available in Vermont, such as the Northeastern Family Institute and the Brattleboro Retreat, are insufficient to meet the growing demand for mental health services among children. By prioritizing investment in mental health resources and destigmatizing mental illness, Vermont can ensure that its youth receive the care and support they need to thrive.

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