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Doctors, Advocates Sound Alarm On Youth Mental Health Crisis: ‘I’ve Never Seen It Close To This Bad’

Rows of students sit at individual desks in a mostly monochromatic illustration. However, each student's head is shaded a different vibrant color.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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For Dr. Heather Huszti, chief psychologist at Children’s Hospital Orange County, the warnings issued by Governor Newsom and the U.S. Surgeon General’s about kids mental health is all too real.

“These are kids suffering ... I’ve practiced in children’s mental health for 30 years. I’ve never seen it close to this bad,” Huszti told LAist.

The number of kids evaluated during a psychiatric crisis increased nearly 60% between 2020 and 2021 at her hospital, Huszti said.

Emergency room stays are so common, Huszti said, that CHOC has started making the environment more comfortable -- and safe -- for young people in a psychiatric crisis. Things like locking up medical equipment, using calming colors and having iPads and coloring kits on hand.

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Mental health experts say struggling youth often face a revolving door of short emergency room stays. After discharge, oftentimes it's left up to parents to monitor children who are at risk of harming themselves or others around the clock.

That’s why Huszti supports AB2317, a bill that would pave the way for children’s psychiatric residential treatment facilities, a sort of middle ground between in-patient hospitalization and home. The measure cleared the state legislature after passing unanimously in the Senate on Wednesday.

The types of treatment facilities outlined in the bill don’t currently exist in California because the proper licensing doesn’t exist, said , and AB2317 would change that.

Adrienne Shilton, director of public policy at the California Alliance, said the bill would create a licensing framework for new treatment facilities with rooms that look like normal bedrooms in a house and could serve as an alternative to youth up to age 21 in a behavioral health crisis. The language of the bill is flexible on whether or not the facilities are locked or unlocked.

Jennifer Rexroad, executive director of the California Alliance of Caregivers, said many families are forced to send their young people out of state for residential treatment programs and she’s seen parents who have had to monitor a child in distress round the clock for days eventually break down. “They physically couldn’t do it anymore,” she said.

The bill has the support of groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Opponents, including Disability Rights California and the Youth Law Center, say the measure doesn’t go far enough to protect the well-being of children who could be placed in these facilities. Critics of AB2317 also point to abuse and unsafe environments that can arise without proper oversight.

Huszti said those are all valid concerns that should be taken into consideration. The bill would mandate reporting requirements and inspections.

With a lack of treatment beds for kids at this level, “everything else backs up,” Huszti said, and youth will continue to languish in emergency departments.

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“We have been decimating our mental health system — and particularly for children —- for decades,” Huszti said.

Assistance For Mental Health Crises Or Support
What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?
One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.

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