No beds available is a bad crisis response

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I know this is probably shocking to my regular readers, but sometimes, things get pretty rough around our house. I know it may be hard to believe, but we have a crazy house. Single mom, full-time job, two high needs kids, a mom on dialysis and life in general makes for a lot to deal with from time to time. 

Lately, I’ve been feeling well. Dialysis at home is going great and I feel more like myself than I have in a very long time. But, my Sylas K is struggling. I’ve written before about his diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, which is irreversible brain damage caused by his biological mom’s use of alcohol during his pregnancy. Along with FASD, he has several serious mental health diagnoses, as well. 

When COVID-19 first took hold in Kansas, Sylas K was in a long-term psychiatric hospitalization. I was terrified to not have him with me and fortunately, he was discharged in the midst of the stay-at-home order. He has remained home and fairly stable since that time. However, in recent weeks it has become apparent that he wasn’t well. Suicidal feelings, struggles at school, rapid mood swings, all signs that his medications are off and it is time for a reboot. 

I like to view his needs as similar to the needs of a child with diabetes. Sometimes, things move along smoothly with no problems. Other times there are rough patches, but things bounce back quickly. Then, in other instances, things are really out of whack. Instead of his insulin needing adjustment, his psych meds need adjusting. Instead of his blood sugar rising or dropping, it is his moods. Both conditions, diabetes and mental illness, can be fatal. However, they are both treated very differently in this country. 

If a child with diabetes has a diabetic emergency, they are rushed to the hospital where they are either stabilized and sent home to follow up with their primary care doctor or they are admitted to the hospital for treatment. Every moment matters and diabetes is taken seriously. Sometimes, children are transferred to a higher level of care, receive additional supports at home and even have access to educational classes to help them learn how to manage their diabetes better. That isn’t necessarily the case with mental illness. 

For a child having a mental health emergency, even serious suicidal ideations, they are often told to wait. A common phrase I hear time and again when I call for help for Sylas K is, “There are no beds available.” Wrap your mind around that for a moment. Your child is suicidal and you call for help and there is no help. It is the equivalent of calling the suicide hotline and being put on hold. To a child in crisis, it is no different from saying, “Good luck. Hope you make it to next week.” 

Being told there are no open beds is a common occurrence for families across Kansas seeking acute inpatient mental health care. We know there is a greater need than there is bed space and professionals to help. What we don’t know is how many children are dying by suicide while they wait for a bed to open up. 

For those children with severe and persistent mental illness, the situation is even more grim. Those children often require stays at long-term psychiatric residential treatment facilities, known as a PRTF. There are very few PRTF’s in the state. The wait for these spots takes months. One time, we waited 14 weeks. This time, our wait was about nine weeks. 

Our system is flawed and it is failing our children. When tragedy strikes and a child dies by suicide, seriously harms a peer or family member or commits an act of violence at their school, our society responds with the question of, “Why”? The answer is simple. Children in crisis continue to be put on hold because there are no beds available. Until we quit talking about making mental health a priority and actually make it a priority tragedies will continue to unfold throughout our community, state and nation. 

We, as a whole, must express clearly to our lawmakers and government officials that “No beds available” is not an acceptable response to crisis. We have to demand more or we will all face the consequences. 

Jessie Wagoner is the managing editor of the McPherson News-Ledger and single mama to Sylas K and Selah J. She can be contacted at jessie@mcphersonweeklynews.com