Screenshot of Child Advocate Sarah Eagan (courtesy of CTN)

Connecticut lawmakers weighing solutions to crisis-level shortages in the availability of mental health services for children, heard calls Tuesday for systemic investments to bolster a behavioral health system where the pandemic inflamed already-existing deficiencies. 

A midday hearing called by House Speaker Matt Ritter in the Legislative Office Building got off to a telling start when Rep. Liz Linehan announced she would have to leave early to attend to a family matter. 

“I’ve been very open about my struggles as a parent of a child with a mental health condition. I want to point out, very quickly, the reason why I’m leaving early: because I finally — finally — have a psychiatric visit for my child after two years of trying,” said Linehan, a Cheshire Democrat who organized a similar forum last month. “Two years.” 

The bipartisan group gathered for the informational hearing hoped to eventually ease that problem. Ritter stressed the legislators would endeavor to find actionable solutions both short and long term. He said he expected the problem would become one of the more critical issues the legislature would wrestle with during next year’s session. 

The crisis is not exclusive to Connecticut. Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared child and adolescent health a national emergency, in response to “soaring rates of mental health challenges” around the country. 

Over the course of two hours, lawmakers heard from an exhaustive roster of providers, advocates and government agency administrators who described a complicated problem: there are not enough services, either in-patient or out, nor enough behavioral health professionals to help Connecticut kids who need mental health treatment. And the problem has ballooned throughout the pandemic. 

State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan told lawmakers her office heard daily from families struggling to find services for children in need.

“Not a week goes by – we hear from a family with a 12-year-old child with just morbid depression and suicidality, released from a hospital, back home with a waiting list,” Eagan said. “That happens all the time. Waiting list. Waiting list. Waiting list. People cannot leave the hospital – you wouldn’t treat cardiac care that way and we treat mental health crisis that way. We can fix that.”

Eagan said the problem could benefit from legislative action because it was a structural issue that required coordination and investment. Lawmakers should develop a plan to enforce Medicaid parity rules and a plan to encourage workforce development in the mental health field.

Representatives from several of the state’s hospital systems spoke about difficulties attracting and retaining mental health professionals. 

“For someone to go and become a licensed clinical social worker, to encourage our students in high school to want to pursue this, they have to see the potential for a career,” Dr. Frank Fortunati, vice chair of psychiatry at Yale New Haven Hospital, said. “That’s really tied ultimately to fee structures and whether someone can make a career treating our most valuable asset, our children.” 

Others pointed to the lack of available beds in hospitals, followed directly by a shortage of out-patient programs for people discharged from hospitals.

“Evidence of this crisis is made manifest in our emergency departments,” Carl Schiessl, senior director of regulatory advocacy for the Connecticut Hospital Association, said. “On any given day, there are as many as 200 adults and 90 children seeking and awaiting care, and I should emphasize ‘awaiting’ care, that have acute behavioral needs sitting in our emergency departments.” 

Schiessl said the state should consider additional financial assistance for hospitals that take steps to expand their capacity and approve requests for rate increases associated with new beds created. 

Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford told lawmakers the agency issued rate increases for in-patient hospital beds in June to address “the immediate crisis of children overflowing in emergency departments” and had also authorized additional Husky rates for children who were experiencing acute challenges and required close observation. 

Several of the speakers asked lawmakers to take the opportunity to make systemic changes to Connecticut’s mental health system to improve the lives of both the patients in need and the limited providers who seek to help them. 

Vernette Townsend, chief nursing officer at Trinity Health of New England, said she had a daughter pursuing a career in mental health treatment. 

“She’s 28 years old and she still wants to save the world. She’s a child development specialist moving around the community. And I watch the fatigue on my daughter’s face as she feels that there is no end in sight,” Townsend said. She said she hoped the Tuesday conversation with lawmakers would lead to better conditions. “I’m hoping a smile will return to her face.”