Staffing issues slow opening of hospital beds at CHKD’s Children’s Pavilion for kids in need of mental health care

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and now more than ever, our young people are in crisis.

Children’s Hospital of the Kings Daughters opened the Children’s Pavilion just over six months ago to meet the growing need for pediatric mental health care.

The need now is larger than ever.

Before CHKD broke ground on Children’s Pavilion, it had 1,600 children on a waiting list for mental health care. Today that number is around 5,000.

“In the past two years as we’ve tried to grow our program, we’ve seen a 30% increase in referrals every year,” said Dr. Carl Petersen, CHKD Chief of Psychiatry and Mental Health Services.

Since opening, the hospital has admitted 285 patients, most, Petersen said, for major depressive disorder.

“These are children that are having thoughts about ending their life or they are engaged in self injurious behavior,” Petersen said.

Of the hospital’s 60 in-patient beds, only half are open.

“While it’s slower than what we would have liked it was the right decision,” said Amy Sampson, CHKD senior VP and chief engagement and innovation officer.

Sampson told WAVY they still need more staff and more training than originally anticipated.

“That challenge is something we are working on every single day,” she said.

The hospital staff has jumped from one child psychiatrist to 18 child psychiatrists, and from two child psychologists to 22. They have 30 mental health therapists and about a dozen psychiatric nurse practitioners on staff, but they need more.

“We recognize that any family that feels they are in crisis needs to get that help right away,” Sampson said. “We’ve put in programs that can address those critical needs, those crisis needs as they’re happening so there isn’t a wait.”

She and Petersen explained that many children begin with group therapy until they can see a specialist. In about 20% of cases, Petersen said, group therapy is all that is needed.

They’ve also opened a partial hospitalization program for those discharged.

“Because that’s usually the most dangerous time, the most high-risk time immediately after a hospitalization, for a child’s safety,” he said.

The plan now is to have all beds open sometime this fall.

In the meantime, artwork created by the patients hangs on the walls of the hospital, with bright colors and words of encouragement that echo that original promise of hope.