by Amelia Ferrell Knisely

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

More than 3,000 kids went to West Virginia University Medicine’s emergency rooms for mental health care last year during the pandemic.

The data, shared by WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital, was recorded from November 2021 through October 2022. In 2019, the number was a little more than 2,000.

It shows a 62 percent increase in kids seeking emergency mental health care at the WVU Medicine hospitals, though the network added eight emergency rooms in that time period.

The medical provider shared the numbers as around the country, a growing number of desperate parents have shown up at emergency rooms with children in need of urgent mental health care.

The data is the first look at how many kids in West Virginia needed emergency mental health care during the pandemic, but the data only accounts for kids who accessed WVU hospitals. Pediatric emergency room data from other hospitals is not publicly available, though efforts are now underway to collect that data in an effort to address gaps in care.

“Let’s be realistic, the worst place to have a kid in a crisis is the emergency room,” said Jim Kaufman, president of the West Virginia Hospital Association.

Across the country, there has been a sharp uptick in kids in need of mental health care due to school disruptions, isolation and stress about health. Youth depression and anxiety doubled in the wake of the health emergency, according to a study. With a shortage of psychiatric beds and youth mental health services (especially in rural areas), more kids have ended up in the emergency room in need of mental health care. Wait times for care have increased, too. 

But, emergency rooms are not equipped to help children beyond immediate safety concerns.

Earlier this month, the journal Pediatrics reported that almost half of children who go to the emergency room with a mental health crisis don’t get the follow-up care they need. 

And, more than 26 percent of children who visited the emergency room for mental health issues were likely to make a repeat visit to the hospital within six months. Follow-up care with a mental health provider has been shown to reduce a person’s suicide risk.

Five months ago, I learned that West Virginia hospitals didn’t publicly share pediatric emergency room data. Journalists and health researchers have used the data from other states to help understand how many kids show up at emergency rooms in a mental health crisis and what their care looks like.

Federal databases, which collect emergency room data from many states, didn’t have pediatric data from West Virginia. 

I started reaching out to hospitals, nonprofits and others around the state who could maybe help me access this data so I could better understand: 1) how many kids were going to emergency rooms for acute mental health care (both before and during the pandemic); how long the patients waited for care; and if they ended up needing hospitalization or receiving other mental health services.

Kevin Hamric, WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital’s marketing and communications manager, and a team at his hospital were the first and only to respond that they’d start pulling data while protecting patients’ privacy. 

“I think our relationship with those who want to know more about taking care of kids and taking care of families in our state … can only be a good thing,” Hamric said.

Amid the pandemic, more West Virginia kids have struggled with their mental health, according to the recent Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Childhood poverty is linked to mental health struggles. The state has the highest rate of kids entering the foster system, and children in the child welfare system are far more likely to experience mental health issues.

Hamric said WVU’s hospital network, which includes 18 hospitals, hopes its growth into rural areas will provide better access to mental health care throughout the state. 

But, care gaps persist, and the West Virginia Hospital Association is hoping to soon have a better understanding of where the state is struggling to help kids in need of emergency mental health care.

Kaufman said his organization is currently working with the state health department to collect emergency room data from all West Virginia hospitals in an effort to analyze kids’ visits for crisis mental health care. The project was in direct response to anecdotal stories about kids in mental health emergencies waiting hours for care in emergency rooms. The data will also show if health providers are successfully linking families with community-based providers, Kaufman explained.

“We know there’s a shortage of mental health care providers in our state,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to see in the future, ‘Are the efforts working to reduce the utilization of the emergency room?’”

If you need help

From parenting support to immediate crisis response, contact 1-844-HELP4WV to talk to a trained helpline specialist who can help you understand options and link you directly to treatment providers. The resource is available 24/7.

You can also get immediate help 24/7 from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is an award-winning journalist in West Virginia. Originally from Rand, West Virginia, she has written for Mountain State Spotlight and the Charleston Gazette-Mail about child welfare, hunger and poverty. Ferrell Knisely also previously worked for The Tennessean in Nashville. Follow her on Twitter.


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