As demand for childhood mental health services grows, advocates warn against cutting funds

  • Melissa Reep says she struggled to find appropriate mental health support in New Hampshire for her son as he grappled with suicidal thoughts. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 3/20/2021 6:46:02 PM

The next time Melissa Reep’s son is in a mental health crisis, she said she’s not staying in New Hampshire to find him care. The state’s system has let her down too many times.

“I am going to drug him and we are going to Massachusetts, because we’re not getting anywhere in New Hampshire,” she said.

Bringing her son Jagger to the emergency room for psychiatric care six times in the span of seven months taught Reep a lot about the shortcomings of the system. Jagger Reep was first escorted to the hospital by Concord Police for self-destructive behavior about a year ago, between his freshman and sophomore years at Plymouth State University.

He was sent home within a couple hours with no medication or strategy to cope, she said. Within two days, Reep brought her son back to the emergency room after another episode and was, again, sent home. The next seven months were filled with a cascade of hospital visits and increasingly severe attempts to take his own life.

Reep’s son is now 21 and has largely dealt with the adult mental health system in New Hampshire. Still, she feels strongly about advocating for reforming the child psychiatric system. She thinks it’s partly to blame for the situation she finds herself in now.

Jagger was 10 when he told his mother he wished he were dead. Reep, who knows the healthcare system well from more than 18 years working as a visiting nurse with the Concord Regional Visiting Nurses Association, did everything in her power to find him the best care in the area. However, facing limited mental health providers in Concord and resources at school, she often found her son relying on the school’s guidance counselor for support.

“His guidance counselor was lovely, you know. She could make worry stones with him but she didn’t have the background to know how to help him,” she said.

She said she constantly feared he might hurt himself while at school.

“I feel like if this has been dealt with earlier, if we had been on top of this earlier, I wouldn’t be going through this now,” she said. “All the signs were there. There just was no support. There was nowhere to turn.”

At a House Finance Committee meeting Tuesday, during which the next two-year state budget was discussed, mental health advocates, including Reep, argued that now more than ever funding for these services is essential.

The pandemic has pushed the gaps in childhood behavioral health resources to center stage. By almost every measure, children are struggling.

Over the last year, a record number of children have sought psychiatric care – on Valentine’s Day, 51 children were waiting for a bed at New Hampshire Hospital, the longest waiting list since NAMI NH began tracking the data in 2015. In 2020, the number of children calling a state-wide crisis hotline increased by nearly 20% since 2019. Even youth homelessness has been on the rise.

In mid-February, Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order requiring schools to open in-person learning at least two days a week, citing mental health concerns.

“It really is for the behavioral and mental health ... that so many of our students have been bearing,” Sununu said during a press conference last month. “It has to be at least a couple days a week to get some eyes on these kids, to get that personal relationship re-established between students and their teachers.”

Advocates hope that the new budget will maintain funding for essential programs like behavioral health programs in schools and mobile crisis teams, a 24/7 hour service that dispatches a clinician and a “peer support specialist” – someone recovering from their own mental illness – to the child in need.

Michele Merritt, the president of New Futures, said she understands there is going to be funds shifted around this year as the COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented financial stress on the state.

“We’re trying to make it abundantly clear to them that this is not an area where we can afford to lose ground,” she said. “Look elsewhere if you’re trying to generate revenue to fund other programs. This is not something that you can underfund in this moment because we are at an acute point of crisis.”

The governor’s proposed budget seems to prioritize these programs but advocates are concerned about some comments from House Finance Committee members. During a meeting early in March, Rep. Ken Weyler likened childhood mental health crises to his grandchild asking to be called Batman for a couple of months.

“They have dream worlds for a while and then they grow up,” he said. “(Children) are likely just going through normal phases of growth.”

Merritt said underfunding these programs in the midst of a pandemic would send the wrong message to families in crisis.

“This is supposed to be a state that is a good place to raise a family,” she said. “We’re really pushing to the side a group of kids and families that are in desperate need of help.”

If you are struggling with depression or having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, for free and confidential support.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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