The state’s fragmented mental health care system is failing to serve the growing number of depressed and suicidal children in Georgia. This remains true whether these children are covered by private health insurance or public plans.
This should be intolerable for a state like ours.
We must do better for our children and their parents who often try desperately to seek the best care – too often with poor results.
What do these failures look like in practice?
Children in crisis wait hours or even days in emergency rooms for a hospital bed to become available.
And while you might think the larger pediatric hospitals in the state could help here, they can’t.
Because they don’t provide mental health care to inpatients. For that matter, neither do most general hospitals in our state.
As a result, children are often sent to private psychiatric hospitals designed primarily for adults which may not have programs staffed with doctors and therapists who specialize in working with children.
These private establishments are often far from children’s homes and strict restrictions on parental visits are common. As you might expect, such isolation can aggravate existing mental health issues.
For those who might think that all of this is no big deal, that children are resilient and prone to unnecessary whining or threats, the statistics should quickly dismiss such notions.
About one in eight teenagers here say they have “seriously” thought about suicide in the past year. Over the past decade, suicides of young Georgians have doubled. And in 2021, at least 119 children and adolescents have ended their lives, according to the Georgian Ministry of Public Health.
This is a horribly unacceptable record; he implores all of us to demand that Georgia find better ways to support children in need.
What should be done?
For starters, Georgia needs to push even harder to build on the mental health reform work that began recently at the Gold Dome. This year, lawmakers passed a Mental Health Parity Act aimed at improving access to a range of behavioral health services.
This should only be seen as a start – a good start, yes, but only a start.
Former State Representative Kevin Tanner, chairman of the state’s Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, framed the challenge well during a meeting in June.
“Now,” he said, “we’re going to make this decade mental health reform.”
His sentiment should find broad support among Georgians. And background fixes should start as soon as possible.
It’s also an encouraging sign that last month Gov. Brian Kemp named Tanner as the next head of the state agency serving Georgians with mental illness.
One of the main levers controlled by state legislators is the amount of payments made to mental health care providers. There seems to be a broad consensus that it is too low.
With the economic rules of supply and demand being what they are, low provider reimbursements can contribute to supply deserts as we see in Georgia.
Yes, it is always wise to spend taxpayers’ money wisely. But spreadsheet statistics and all-too-common stories of family tragedies resulting from mental health crises strongly underscore the need for more investment.
The new mental health law requires state agencies to collect data, including how Georgia’s payments compare to those in other states. Tanner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “I anticipate that once this study comes back, we’ll see the commission push for increases in these reimbursement rates that can benefit everyone in the system.”
But the adjustment of refunds will not be enough to solve this crisis.
Georgia has too few inpatient beds to treat young people with serious mental health issues. Neither Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta nor The Children’s Hospital of Georgia, part of the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, has one.
There are also sometimes serious and persistent problems with the quality of care provided in existing institutions. This indicates insufficient regulatory oversight by the Georgian Ministry of Community Health.
As we discovered in our “Unprotected” series on aged care facilities, DCH is often too slow to investigate or impose sanctions on care facilities that fail to meet acceptable standards.
That should change as mental health reform efforts progress here.
DCH should also be required to be more transparent to Georgians in what it does – or doesn’t do. For example, the agency’s response to open case inquiries from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has long been abysmal.
Georgians deserve much better insight from an agency charged with helping to keep vulnerable people safe.
It is encouraging that many legislators recognize the serious problems.
But it’s time for the Gold Dome – with the support of Georgians – to do more to address them.
The Editorial Board.
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