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'We’re turning our backs' Shortage of mental health treatment beds for youth

hospital mental health
Posted at 4:15 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 18:21:31-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — There's a major shortage of residential mental health treatment beds for adolescents. In addition, mental health emergency rooms that accept children are bursting at the seams.

According to state data in Tennessee, around 300,000 youth were diagnosed with a mental illness last year. At the same time, treatment options are dwindling.

"I can’t say why but over the years the number of youths who have needed in-patient mental health treatment has grown significantly, so you have these very few facilities that will take them, and they already most of the time are full, and so there’s rarely no place for these other children to go," said Sheila Calloway, Davidson County Juvenile Court judge.

Calloway said it's not uncommon for the Department of Children's Services to have no placement options for a child who needs long-term mental health help.

The majority of foster homes aren't equipped to deal with violent children so some kids bounce from one to another. "So we really are at a loss when it comes to where is a good placement for these youth that need the help the most," Calloway said.

Sometimes, they don't have accessible treatment options until they're an adult. "It says we’re giving up on that child, and we’re turning our backs on that child, and we’re not taking care of the children who need it the most," Calloway said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Lee designated millions to go towards mental health resources for children. The trust fund proposal would also help uninsured children suffering from severe mental illness.

"I definitely believe that some of that money should be allocated for residential treatment facilities," Calloway said.

Calloway said when youth are not competent to go to trial, they used to refer them to the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute. However, years ago a state law changed, and now those under the age of 18 are no longer accepted there.

"There was a push around that time to not place a bunch of youth with mental health issues in the same facility similar to the argument made about insane asylums," Calloway said.

It’s a cycle Calloway hopes will be broken soon. "We’ve got to do a better job with that money and resources to build the facility and the capacities that we need for the many youth that are in need of residential services," she said.

Parents also don't have anywhere to turn. Youth Villages has six group homes between Nashville and Memphis for less severe mental health cases. All of them are full. Rolling Hills Hospital in Franklin accepts children suffering from a psychiatric emergency. They're mostly full right now as well.