This article was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and co-published with WRAL-TV.
By Taylor Knopf
A 9-year-old girl with mental health issues spent at least four months this spring living in a Novant Health emergency room in Wilmington: sleeping, eating, doing school work. During that time, emergency department staff searched for an available mental health facility that could take a child so young.
“I have kids that have been in our hospital for three, four or five months waiting for an appropriate living situation,” said Paula Bird, vice president of behavioral health services at Novant Health, the Winston-Salem-based hospital network that operates Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
She explained that many of these long stays occur when a county department of social services is involved. In some cases, overwhelmed parents bring their child to the ER and leave, saying they can’t take the child back home without some kind of treatment.
The Wilmington case, which was described by Bird, is not unique. Hospital officials across the state say there are children in mental health distress living in their emergency departments. Atrium Health has seen a 65 percent increase in emergency department patients needing psychiatric care, according to leaders at the Charlotte-based hospital group. For children in need of psychiatric care, the demand tripled over the course of the pandemic.
“We’ve seen since the beginning of 2022 that our numbers have just stayed high consistently and that’s not typical,” Wayne Sparks, medical director of Atrium Health Behavioral Health Services, said in May. “We’ll have surges, but they typically will be a week or two and then go back down. But this has been sustained now for the last five months.”
Emergency department data from hospitals across North Carolina show an elevated rate of pediatric patient visits throughout most of the pandemic compared to previous years, mirroring national trends. Young people have experienced higher levels of depression, with 44 percent of U.S. high school students in 2021 reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Kids who harm themselves or express suicidal thoughts often land in the emergency department. From there, it’s common for emergency department staff to initiate an involuntary commitment — a process that calls for sending patients to one of the state’s few psychiatric hospital beds.
Health experts are calling the youth mental health crisis the latest wave of