ConnectOC Blog

CHOC Children’s Breaks Ground on Pediatric Mental Health

Posted by: Orange County Community Foundation on 9/27/2016

One out of five children suffers from a mental health condition. But despite this prevalence, the more than 150,000 children in Orange County who are affected often are stigmatized or shamed – and the lack of behavioral health options prevents them from accessing critical treatment. How could their lives be improved if their families could seek timely, appropriate help? CHOC Children’s is finding out by building Orange County’s first inpatient mental health program to accommodate children under the age of 12.

The lack of services for children with mental health needs is prevalent nationwide. The number of inpatient psychiatric beds in California has declined over the past 15 years. It’s even worse in Orange County, where there is just one bed for every 22,000 children. And none for kids under the age of 12.

But that soon will change. Earlier this month, CHOC Children’s broke ground for pediatric mental health.

As part of the transformative mental health initiative that CHOC and other Orange County leaders launched last year, CHOC is celebrating the start of construction on the pediatric inpatient mental health center. Once completed, it will feature 18 private rooms in a secure and healing environment, including an outdoor area. CHOC intends to provide a safe, nurturing place for children ages 3 to 18, and specialty programming for children younger than 12. The center’s innovative floor plan was designed with guidance from national experts and incorporates elements of several exemplary programs observed by CHOC staff. Construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2017 – none too soon for Orange County’s youth. 

“Families with children under 12 years old no longer will have to hospitalize them in another county,” said Heather Huszti, Ph.D., CHOC chief psychologist. “And they won't have waits of five to seven days in emergency departments for appropriate treatment when they are in a psychiatric crisis. When this center opens, we can better coordinate after-hospital care for the children and their families, as we know the resources available in Orange County. Parents will be able to participate more completely in their child’s treatment since they won’t have to travel to Los Angeles or San Diego.”

CHOC credits its ability to increase the number of inpatient psychiatric beds available and offer the first inpatient treatment for children younger than 12 years with support from members of the Orange County Pediatric Mental Health Task Force, which CHOC and Rick and Kay Warren, cofounders of Saddleback Church formed in fall 2014. Led by Dr. Maria Minon, CHOC chief medical officer, and Dr. Huszti, the task force is comprised of community leaders, educators and faith-based advisors who come together to prioritize a comprehensive pediatric system of care for patients with mental illness.

“Through the support of a state- and county-funded project, we have also begun a pilot program of new triage services in the emergency department for children coming for psychiatric evaluations,” Huszti explained. “This intensive intervention has allowed families to get matched to appropriate services sooner and be able to shorten their stay in the emergency department.”

According to CHOC, half of children with symptoms of mental health disorders have conditions that cause significant impairment in daily life. In Orange County, 20 percent of youth reported needing help for mental health problems, but less than a third of them actually received that help.

Despite their prevalence, pediatric mental health issues still are shrouded in shame and even the youngest patients and their families can be stigmatized because of fear and misunderstanding.

“One of the best things we can do to reduce stigma is to have an ongoing dialogue about mental health,” Huszti said. “This isn't one conversation. Instead, it's repeated conversations at all levels, individually with families and friends, through all types of media, and through our health care systems and legislative branches. Since mental illness is so pervasive, once a conversation starts, people generally find out that other families have dealt with the same issue.”

Huszti finds that more individuals feel comfortable coming forward when others are willing to share their stories. In addition, she advocates normalizing the screening for mental illness to reduce the stigma.

“Just like we do screening for pre-diabetes, for example, we should routinely screen for mental health issues at well child and annual check-ups,” she said.

Chances are someone you know, or even someone in your family, is affected.


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