CLEVELAND — Children experiencing serious mental health crises are often unable to access the help they need, even in critical situations, because of pandemic-induced workforce shortages, according to Northeast Ohio mental health leaders.
Data from the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County shows 114 children were waitlisted for a crisis bed in 2020 and 2021, even though evaluations determined their level of mental distress warranted the emergency form of inpatient care.
"What we're finding is those beds can't be filled all the time," said Scott Osiecki, Chief Executive Officer of the ADAMHS Board of Cuyahoga County. "We have the beds available, but we don’t necessarily have the staff to provide the needed care to the individuals in that crisis bed."
"It's really disappointing to find out that there's not enough staff now to provide those services," he said.
"Every day we are getting calls from families in crisis," said Jeffrey Lox, Executive Director, Bellefaire JCB. The nonprofit provides behavioral health services for children, including crisis beds.
"It's heartbreaking when we’re saying to people, 'We’d love to help, but we’ve got a wait list'."
He said Bellefaire has operated with only 60% of its staff since the pandemic started.
The only other two Cuyahoga agencies that provide crisis beds for kids are also short-staffed.
Information provided by the ADAMHS Board shows Applewood Center needs 20 additional workers. Ohio Guidestone needs 28.
Lox said competition for mental health workers is so fierce candidates often don't show up for interviews or even call to cancel.
"We get, a word that I cannot believe that I say at this age, “ghosted'," Lox said. "We get ghosted on a percentage of interviews that would blow your mind," he said.
Lox has also been shocked by where potential workers get hired.
He said industry pay has remained low, since many agencies, including Bellefaire, depend heavily on Medicaid reimbursements.
He's now competing for candidates with businesses, including Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, and Mitchell's Ice Cream.
"They’re [Mitchell's] offering way more than we offer per hour, plus college tuition, plus all the ice cream you can eat," he said. "I literally can’t compete. "
Even more troubling, the pandemic didn't spark only "The Great Resignation."'
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a pandemic survey in March that found 44% of high school students reported persistent sad or hopeless feelings during the pandemic.
A JAMA Pediatrics research letter published in April found adolescent suicide rates increased in five states, including Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
While the article said Ohio's rate neither increased or decreased, records show the number of young people who took their lives in Cuyahoga County increased since the pandemic.
Data shows 17 people under the age of 25 died by suicide in 2021 compared to 13 in 2019.
Frustration & fears
"I feel like we need to do better," Latavia Cloud said.
The 20-year-old Cleveland resident said accessing a crisis bed saved her life. "If I didn't, I might not be here today," she said.
She was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder with bipolar when she was just 10-years-old, a mental illness that can be treated with medication and therapy, but not cured.
The diagnosis sent her spiraling down a dark path.
It "crushed" her, she said. "I was like, 'I don't want to live this way'."
Cloud said she hears and sees things that aren't real, sounds and sights that are often negative.
"The voices tell me to hurt myself sometimes," she said.
She's now an active member of Magnolia Clubhouse, which serves people with mental illness.
She's also studying to be a veterinary technician at Cuyahoga Community College.
Cloud said she will not allow the dark voices inside to drown her light.
"I want to have a life," she said. "A happy one."