A signature carrot chair at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

As Connecticut’s leading providers of pediatric care, at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, we have seen first-hand in our hospitals the toll the past year has taken on children’s mental health. In communities around the state, children and families are struggling. They are waiting longer to see mental health specialists, waiting longer in emergency rooms, and waiting longer to receive inpatient care when necessary.

Cynthia N. Sparer and James E. Shmerling

The current trends in our state and across the country illustrate an environment that could produce poorer health outcomes for children if we as a state fail to act with urgency.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated children’s behavioral health needs due to social isolation, disruption in routine and resulting stress.

Together we are urging state leaders to support immediate changes that would lead to a comprehensive, integrated and sustainable behavioral health ecosystem that can be readily accessed by families as well as pediatricians, schools and community agencies.

With consistent patterns of children coming into our emergency departments for mental health treatment, we have looked to leaders in our industry for best practices. Children’s hospitals across the country are experiencing the same increases in behavioral health issues. Data from the Children’s Hospital Association noted that in 2020 there was a 24% increase in mental health emergency visits in children age 5 to 11 and a 31% increase in children age 12 to 17.

Through the lens of these staggering numbers, we were initially encouraged by Gov. Ned Lamont’s attention to the urgent need in children’s mental health with the release of his proposal in late April. Unfortunately, the Governor’s proposed investment of $33 million over the next two years is based upon the Connecticut Behavioral Health Plan for Children, which was finalized in 2014 in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy.

While the development of this plan appropriately included subject matter experts, community leaders and public officials, the mental health needs of children have changed in the past seven years, especially as a result of the pandemic.

The scope and intensity of mental health challenges that children are facing today is very different, and as leaders, we need to adjust accordingly. The current pediatric mental health ecosystem in Connecticut has been under-resourced for years and requires new investments throughout the entire continuum of care. Such investment will have both immediate impact on the children in our emergency rooms and hospital beds and it will strengthen our state’s approach for the long term.

We remain thoughtful and focused on solutions to help all children in this state and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with state leaders. Children and families are depending upon us to ensure a forward-thinking response. We need to act now and help Connecticut’s children to thrive both physically and mentally.

Connecticut demonstrated its strength in how it addressed the pandemic. Now, our children deserve the same level of commitment and vigilance.

James E. Shmerling, DHA, FACHE, is President and CEO of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Cynthia N. Sparer is Executive Director of Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital and Chief Ambulatory Officer, Yale New Haven Health System.

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