Researchers said approximately 17.1 million children in the U.S. have a mental health disorder. Furthermore, between 2% and 5% of emergency department presentations are related to mental health.

In 2012, the rate of mental health emergency department visits among children was 50.4 per 100,000. This number rose to 78.5 in 2016. When the researchers compared the rate at which mental health-related emergency room visits occurred by race, they observed a more significant increase in African-American children compared with Caucasian children.

Although rates of mental health disorders are increasing throughout the country among children, minority children are less able to gain access to mental health care services compared with nonminority children. Poverty, limited access to healthcare, stigma, and poor education are some of the reasons why mental health disorders are more common in minority children compared to Caucasian children in the United States. There is a large need for pediatric mental health therapists and child psychiatrists in the United States and because of the lack of mental health services available, many children who present to the emergency department with mental health symptoms are either told to visit their primary care physician or receive inadequate treatment in the emergency department.

Emergency rooms may not be the best solution to a mental health crisis

Pediatric patients exhibiting signs and symptoms of a mental health crisis may face major hurdles when they arrive in the emergency department for treatment. For starters, psychiatric care (especially pediatric psychiatric care) is not a required service for most acute care hospitals. Many hospitals simply do not have the proper staff, facilities or expertise to handle a mental health emergency and as a result, children are told to go to their primary pediatrician or are given sub-optimal care in the emergency room. Additionally, in the emergency room, diagnosis and appropriate treatment are often delayed because there is not a pediatric mental health expert on site. Meanwhile, the stress of the emergency room setting is far from ideal for managing a mental health crisis in a child. In the case of children or adolescents who are demonstrating self-harm or suicidal tendencies, this can even lead to excessive use of physical restraints to keep the child “safe” while they wait for a mental health specialist.

How to help your child in a mental health crisis

Regardless of race or ethnicity, accessing the mental health system can be cumbersome for any parent and with increasing rates of emergency department visits among Africa-American children, learning what to do when your child is having a mental health crisis is important for their quality of treatment. Discovery For Behavioral Health is a leading behavioral and mental health treatment center that offers behavioral therapy to young adolescents and their families. From childhood trauma, behavioral difficulties that stem from adoption and the long-term effects of child abuse, and mental health disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, and self-harm. Discovery Behavioral Health offers a multitude of therapy approaches that are specific to childhood developmental disorders and trauma. Therapists also work closely with the parents to teach them behavioral management strategies and techniques that they can use in the home on a daily basis.

The following can help guide parents in accessing the mental health system when their child is in a crisis:

  • If you are going to take your child to the emergency department, take them to a pediatric hospital, never an adult hospital.
  • Always have your health insurance on hand and if you are not insured do not let this deter you from seeking help.
  • Be prepared to explain the child’s current living situation and bring any custody documents when necessary
  • Be able to provide a treatment history, if there is one.
  • Be able to provide a brief summary of your child’s signs and symptoms as they may change when the child is brought for evaluation.
  • Ask your pediatrician for any mental health treatment facility recommendations.
  • Call a mental health crisis hotline and ask for pediatric mental health treatment centers in your area
  • Use the Internet to search for pediatric mental health facilities in your area.