In recent years, children across the country have struggled with depression, anxiety and other problems because of COVID-19, exposure to violence, family issues, school disruptions and more. That’s also been true in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast, where virus rates ran particularly high for several months and major hurricanes led to damaged homes and temporary displacements.
However, Children’s Hospital New Orleans has become a beacon of hope for these children and their families, thanks in large part to the new 51-bed, 70,000 square foot Behavioral Health Center. The center is one of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive pediatric mental health programs and the only psychiatric program in the Gulf Coast region that is exclusively dedicated to children and adolescents in crisis.
“This is a remarkable step that Children’s Hospital New Orleans has taken,” said Dr. Mark Kline, the hospital’s physician-in-chief and chief medical officer. “Only a few other hospitals have done anything approaching this magnitude. We are a medium-sized children’s hospital who is making a big commitment to behavioral health, and we are excited about that. I think we are ahead of the curve in many ways. You can’t name a more underserved population today than children and adolescents with behavioral and mental health problems. The numbers are enormous and the resources so far have been minimal.”
The Behavioral Health Center treats children and adolescents ages seven to 17. Most stay in the inpatient program for about a week, said Mark Ranatza, senior director of emergency and behavioral health services at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. The specific treatment varies depending on the patient’s needs, but each uses a multidisciplinary approach, including sessions with psychiatrists and therapists, recreational time, art and music therapy, medication, group therapy and more.
“You cannot focus on only one area. It’s important to have multiple venues for children to express their feelings and emotions,” Ranatza said. “Some work well in group settings. Some do better in individual sessions. Some express themselves best through art and music. When you combine all of that into a comprehensive program like we have, it all complements each other and is an effective way to help a child move through an acute crisis, stabilize and return to normal life.”
Other services at the center include outpatient treatment such as individual, group and family therapy; psychiatric consultations, autism services, medical psychology, virtual care, trauma and grief care, and a partnership with the city’s juvenile justice intervention center.
Ranatza said Children’s Hospital New Orleans is working more closely with parents to help identify signs of a potential problem. Some common red flags include children isolating themselves, becoming disinterested in activities, bringing home lower grades than usual or acting out. Ranatza said parents are encouraged to talk with their children every day and ask detailed questions about friends, school and activities, rather than accepting one-word answers.
Kline added that children with specific types of anxiety may avoid certain circumstances. For example, those with social anxiety may disengage from group situations or in-person interactions. Others may become highly anxious about traveling, test-taking or other activities. When children are depressed, whether because of a specific event or no particular reason, they may struggle with normal everyday activities like eating and sleeping.
In addition, the Behavioral Health Center team works with the Children’s Hospital New Orleans Trauma and Grief Center, which Kline noted is one of the few programs of its kind in the United States.
“The trauma that many children experience today is pervasive, whether it’s natural disasters, gun violence, family violence or another situation,” Kline said. “Studies have shown that trauma is one of the leading causes of school failure and can have quite a negative impact if left unresolved. That center has already had remarkable outcomes by working with children who are traumatized and preventing lifelong mental health consequences. It’s only been around about six months and I can already tell it will be an incredible resource.”
Besides the services available on the Children’s Hospital New Orleans campus, Ranatza noted that the behavioral health team also works with area schools to identify children in need and provides school-based services to them. The initial programs have been successful and Ranatza said they hope to expand them in the future.
“In order to combat mental health problems and make sure kids receive services, these issues need to be addressed when children are younger,” Ranatza said. “One of the best ways to make sure things are noticed is to be in the schools, collaborate with them and support them so that issues can be addressed as soon as possible.”
The Behavioral Health Center requires substantial private funding to remain successful. The center, as well as other Children’s Hospital New Orleans services, are eligible to receive donations on this year’s GiveNOLA Day on Tuesday, May 3. To make a donation, visit www.givenola.org/CHNOLA.