Alabama offers solution for youth mental health crisis

Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 10:19 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on children’s mental health. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a rare and urgent call to direct resources for those who are suffering in record numbers.

Mental health experts say as we all continue to shoulder additional stress through the pandemic, it’s being absorbed by children and teens.

“It has really challenged children and we’ve seen a lot of kids coming in with higher acuity as far as their symptoms and more complicated cases that were made more difficult because the pandemic has created fallout in home life economically, etc.,” explained Cindy Jones, director of the Psychiatric Intake Response Center or PIRC at Children’s of Alabama.

From 2020 to 2021, the PIRC reported a 64% increase in calls and a 72% increase in emergency visits.

“September and October were our busiest months and in fact, the busiest that we’ve ever had since we started the Psychiatric Intake Response Center,” Jones added.

Since the PIRC opened in 2018, calls and visits ramp up as school resumes and taper off during breaks.

“I would say that the age range that we see the most is between ages 12 to 15 years old,” stated Jones. “That typically is the kids who are here presenting with suicidal thinking, maybe homicidal thinking, have a lot of depression and anxiety. Depression, anxiety and suicidal thinking are our top three presenting concerns that we see and that we hear about.”

The PIRC at Children’s of Alabama is one of three in the country and serves patients statewide. Last year, more than 3,700 adolescents came through the ER and were referred to the PIRC.

“We’re going to do an evaluation to determine what is the next step, whether that is admission for inpatient stabilization or it may mean returning to the community with resources that you didn’t have before.”

The PIRC also fielded nearly 3,000 calls from parents, nurses, teachers, and pediatricians.

“A lot of people don’t know where to go, what to do, or who they need, so the value of the PIRC is that we do have licensed clinicians who are able to do a brief assessment on the phone and determine what is it your child really needs based on the presenting concern,” Jones responded.

Between 8% to 9% of those calls refer patients to the closest emergency room, while others are matched with the appropriate care in their community.

“We walk them through that process of determining if they need to see a psychiatrist for medication management or does the child need therapy and what type of providers are available,” said Jones.

The underlying issue for all those referrals, providers are booked and often have a waitlist. The smaller the community often means a longer wait or traveling to other counties for care.

“But the beauty of what we do in the PIRC is we provide more than one resource to the caller,” she explained. “So we may provide different practices that may fit your need in your community.”

Jones encourages everyone to identify mental health concerns and intervene early. For children, that often presents as clingy behavior with caregivers and complaints of headaches or stomach aches.

In adolescents, pay attention to changes in behaviors over a period of time, difficulty focusing, lower grades, lack of interest and overall disengagement or isolation from friends or family.

“You may see children who are acting out at school or running away, who are more easily frustrated, they may be having difficulty following rules at school and that should be a red flag that they’re in crisis,” Jones acknowledged.

For those who are suffering, she has this message:

“You may feel hopeless, but there are providers and people that want to help, there are effective mental health treatments that do help children - that do help teens that can get them through that crisis and that are extremely effective,” encouraged Jones. “So that there’s always hope and that idea that suicide is the solution is absolutely not true.”

The PIRC isn’t a crisis or suicide hotline. You can reach the PIRC by calling 205-638-PIRC (7472).

Anyone experiencing a crisis or having suicidal thoughts should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Other resources available include:


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