It’s no secret we need to provide better access to care for New Mexico’s most vulnerable children.
Youth suicide rates in our state are more than twice the national average, and we have seen a significant increase in the number of children and adolescents experiencing a major depressive episode. Many factors, including the stresses of the COVID pandemic, are contributing to this problem.
The University of New Mexico Children’s Psychiatric Center (CPC) is one of the only resources in the state for helping these young patients, but the residential cottages on our campus, constructed nearly 50 years ago, are ill-equipped to meet current needs.
In the 1970s, child psychiatric patients typically received care for months at a time in a homelike environment. These days, we follow an acute stabilization model in which the average length of stay is closer to 11 days. The existing facility does not support current program requirements.
And today’s patients often present with more acute symptoms, increasing dramatically the use of the Behavioral Health Intensive Care Unit (BICU). The facility currently has one BICU bed, even though we often have three or four patients requiring this level of care. Although the current facility has 35 beds, we often can’t accommodate that many patients because lower-acuity beds must be closed to provide the space and staffing needed for patients requiring BICU-level care.
Further complicating matters, community resources for autism spectrum and neuro-developmental disorders patients have been reduced, resulting in more of these patients being sent to CPC. These children have higher-acuity needs that exacerbate existing staffing and operational issues.
The bottom line is that our pediatric behavioral health patients are often sent out of state or end up boarding in general pediatric units in acute care hospitals based on the lack of in-state inpatient capacity.
This fall, New Mexico voters are being asked to approve General Obligation Bond 3 to fund higher education projects throughout the state. At UNM, GO Bond 3 would provide $36 million to rebuild the CPC to meet modern standards.
All the funding from GO Bond 3 would be used to upgrade clinical settings and add new technology. The new center would have a patient capacity of 52 beds and include a higher-capacity BICU.
The behavioral and mental health challenges afflicting our children and adolescents are heartbreaking, causing tremendous suffering for patients and families alike. With GO Bond 3, voters will have an opportunity to make a meaningful difference for New Mexico families.
Douglas Ziedonis, MD, MPH, is also the executive vice president for UNM Health Sciences and a professor in the UNM Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.