The Valley lacks mental health resources for kids. This new hospital could help

For years, most Valley parents of children with serious behavioral mental health issues have had to travel to Bakersfield, or cities even farther away, to find inpatient psychiatric care for their children.

Across California, there are only about 700 inpatient pediatric mental health beds available to serve a population of more than 6 million children under 18 – an acute shortage compared to national guidelines, said Lynne Ashbeck, senior vice president for community engagement at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera.

That number is going to improve, however modestly, in the spring of 2022, when United Health Services expects to open a new 128-bed behavioral mental health hospital on the Valley Children’s Hospital campus. At least 24 of those beds will be reserved for pediatric mental health services for children ages 5 to 17.

The hospital and UHS announced the project Sept. 18. UHS, which operates more than 200 behavioral health facilities across the U.S. including seven in California, will build, own and operate the hospital. It will employ about 250 people, including doctors, nurses, technicians, support staff and administrators.

“In the months ahead, we will focus our efforts on building a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility here in Madera,” said Mike Zauner, group director of UHS Behavioral Health and CEO of Sierra Vista Hospital in Elk Grove. “This new facility will address the growing and unmet behavioral health and substance abuse needs facing the community.”

Zauner praised Valley Children’s leaders as “strong, vocal and passionate advocates for better behavioral health care.”

The lack of existing inpatient mental health facilities in the Valley is stark. “There are 929,436 children between the ages of 6 to 17 residing in the Central Valley, and only 49 current beds,” said Todd Suntrapak, Valley Children’s president and CEO. “That means there is one bed for every 18,986 children or adolescents.”

School officials including Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Bob Nelson and Fresno County Schools superintendent Jim Yovino, and law enforcement leaders like Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp attended the UHS / Valley Children’s announcement ceremony. Suntrapak said schools and law enforcement deal on a daily basis with mental health concerns among both children and adults.

Fresno County parents must travel far to save their mentally ill children

“Mental behavioral health issues are running rampant in our country and people can’t get the help that they need,” Suntrapak told The Bee. “And even if they’re lucky enough to get in front of a clinician who says, ‘We need to get you help,’ there’s no place for them to go.”

From October 2018 through June 2019, about 450 patients have turned up in the emergency room at Valley Children’s with behavioral mental health concerns. Of those, 78 required acute psychiatric hospitalization – but the vast majority had to be transferred out of the Valley for treatment. And some of those patients have had to stay in the emergency room for hours or even days while the hospital tries to find a place for them to go for treatment. “Today there is no infrastructure. There’s no place to turn for help now,” Suntrapak said.

“In the future, there’s going to be a place to turn for help, infrastructure, and a lot more access,” he added. “Even with the addition of this 128-bed facility, which will have 24 beds for kids, there is still a major and massive gap between what is recommended … but this is obviously a start.”

In addition to the 24 inpatient beds for children, other units in the new hospital will serve adults and senior citizens with psychiatric concerns. Special programs will be offered for adults experiencing both behavioral health and substance abuse issues.

“While the biggest focus is on the inpatient capability, there’s also an outpatient capability that will also have a profound impact on kids,” Suntrapak said. “Really, for most of the kids who need behavioral mental health support, it is in the outpatient realm” rather than requiring hospitalization.

Among the outpatient services for children will be “telepsychology” services that allow patients and doctors to visit via videoconferencing, including at Valley Children’s network of care providers – effectively a specialist visit by video appointment. Suntrapak said such outpatient services are due to begin within six months, long before the inpatient hospital opens.

For its part, Valley Children’s will begin working to develop a psychiatric residency program that will work with both hospitals to help care for patients with behavioral health needs.

Establishing the psychiatric facility on its growing campus on the north side of the San Joaquin River just off of Highway 41 also represents a step “toward developing a fully integrated medical campus in the future,” Suntrapak said. “The next phase is to bring an adult hospital to this campus, which we think will be the only one that is fully integrated (to provide pediatric, adult and senior care services) in the Valley.”

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.