Going to the Top

BayCare Advocates Address Congress on Children’s Mental Health Care


While the long-term physical effects of the COVID pandemic continue to be studied, the mental health effects, particularly among adolescents and teens, often go underreported and, more importantly, underfunded.


However, that may begin to change. BayCare Health System operates 15 hospitals in West Central Florida, including Winter Haven, Bartow, Plant City and Sebring, and is part of a regional push to raise funding to study the pandemic’s impact on children’s mental health and wellness.


“Even before the pandemic, there was a significant unmet need for behavioral health services for both young people and adults,” says Gail Ryder, BayCare’s Vice President of Behavioral Health Services. “We’re worried about the long-term impact on mental health in children. We’re already beginning to see a surge in post-traumatic stress disorder.”


Ryder was part of a contingent of pediatric patients and behavioral health professionals who met with members of Congress in June to speak on behalf of children with significant health challenges, particularly pediatric mental health. The group met with U.S. Representatives Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Kathy Castor, Darren Soto and Greg Steube, as well as Congressman Charlie Crist and Senator Marco Rubio.


“During our visits, we shared that we have seen an increase in hospital visits for mental health emergencies in children and young people,” says Ryder. “We found our local delegation to be receptive in understanding the increased needs of our community.” 


The goal of the meeting was for legislators to fund research to assess the pandemic’s impact on children’s mental health and wellness. The group asked Congress to provide funding for and to direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to complete a study on the impact of the pandemic on the behavioral health of children and families and to provide a report to Congress and the Administration with recommendations in the first quarter of 2022.


“The trauma of this pandemic is unprecedented in scope and duration, and its impact is likely to be complex and generational,” says Ryder. “The pandemic has added urgency to what already was a significant need.”


According to the CDC, from April to October 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 24 percent increase in the proportion of mental health emergency department visits for children ages 5 to 11, and a 31 percent increase in the 12- to 17-year-old age group, compared to 2019. According to Ryder, BayCare saw more than 2,500 pediatric inpatient admissions, as well as roughly 120,000 outpatient visits for 2020. 


While telehealth has been instrumental in reaching patients and the community during the pandemic, the numbers seem to be increasing this year. Inpatient volume has risen dramatically since January 2021, according to Ryder, including an increase in girls with serious suicide attempts. Ryder says her office is seeing an increase in substance abuse, particularly methamphetamine in Polk County, as well as alcohol abuse.


The increase in numbers has affected staff, who have faced increasing pressure from the high volume on top of the stress exacerbated by COVID-19 exposures and quarantines that can leave units short-staffed and with limited time off.


“We need to improve access to care and address the workforce shortage in the field, where there are not enough providers to meet demand,” says Ryder. “Earlier this year, (we) announced a big step to address the need for practitioners: We’re launching a psychiatric residency program in 2022.”


BayCare is already one of the largest nonprofit providers of behavioral health services in Florida. The system employs more than 1,000 professionals to provide a full range of outpatient, community-based, inpatient and residential behavioral health services for children and adults. BayCare operates teams that provide mobile services to children and families in different communities in Central Florida and also teams up with community organizations to provide mentorship and school-based classes to help adolescents learn crucial stress management and wellness skills.


“Behavioral health is one of the most significant health needs across our region and is the number one priority area identified in our comprehensive Community Health Needs Assessment in 2019,” says Ryder. “We want to see our children and young people have all the resources they need to meet these challenges.”


In Polk County, BayCare continues its work with Polk County Schools to help address behavioral health needs. Ryder says the National Alliance on Mental Illness awarded the Polk County affiliate a $25,000 grant to support its work with patients and families struggling with mental illness.


“There are some effective programs and services out there, but we’d like to see more connectivity between them,” says Ryder. “For example, many kids have access to resources through their schools but don’t have any support during the summer or other times when schools are closed. We’d like to see more comprehensive and coordinated services that support children and their families.”


A comprehensive study focused on the long-term impacts of the pandemic could help identify where those services could become better coordinated.

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