EDC Member Battles Children’s Behavioral Issues 

Childhood illnesses are never easy, but mental illness can be especially heartbreaking because treatment options are often limited.

A crisis may involve an elementary-aged child who begins acting out in school, or a preteen who starts having thoughts of suicide. As many parents know too well, there are countless issues and few solutions.

Children’s Mercy Kansas City is working hard to improve that.

An EDC member, Children’s Mercy last year announced its new Illuminate program. The goal is a comprehensive, four-pronged effort to expand mental healthcare services in Greater Kansas City while expanding research and other advanced services for children in crisis.

Long-Term Effort

Illuminate is already working to address some of the most serious and widespread issues facing children with behavioral challenges and their parents. One priority is getting help to those in need quickly, especially when time may be a life-or-death issue. 

“As a hospital, we’ve been watching these trends for a long time,” explained Kathy Worland, director of Social Work Child and Family Mental Health Services at Children’s Mercy. “We realized we have to wrap our arms around the mental health crisis in our community. We decided everyone should come together and make a focus on our kids.”

Space is one major issue. A child in crisis may need overnight care in a specialized hospital, but there are only 166 beds in this metro area of over 1.7 million people. There are no beds dedicated to children with mental health issues who also deal with autism spectrum disorder, intellectual or developmental disabilities. 

Other, even more frightening statistics show the trends: In 2016, Children’s Mercy saw 1,200 children and teens come through their emergency rooms with mental health issues. Last year, that number jumped to 3,515.

“We knew we had to do something,” Worland said. “We need to come up with a plan that will change the landscape.”

Strategic Directions

After nearly five years, the result is Illuminate, a five-year plan that targets increased access to evidence-based treatment to improve the lives of our most vulnerable populations. It uses nationally recognized techniques in four major strategies that guide 14 projects over the next five years. With $150 million in new investment, it seeks to help 80,000 children.

This foundation involves four strategies: facilitating early intervention; increasing specialty services; investing in research; and innovation and expanding hospital care. Each is comprised of several projects, including some already under way.

Since the 2023 announcement, Children’s Mercy Kansas City has already launched the Depression and Anxiety in Youth (DAY) Clinic, the hospital’s first program dedicated to treating these conditions. A new Mental Wellness Campus is under development in a joint effort with Camber Mental Health, a national leader in delivering specialized mental and behavioral healthcare. This new initiative will open a $53-million, 72-bed mental health inpatient hospital as early as late this year.  

The hospital also launched a pilot program to embed behavioral health clinicians in primary care practices to help facilitate early intervention and improve access to treatment. Three community-based primary care offices will participate in the pilot program, and each practice will have its own dedicated behavioral health clinician hired, managed, trained, and supervised by Children’s Mercy.  

The hospital is also growing its Eating Disorders Center services to streamline comprehensive care for Avoidance/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. The program will be the only consolidated program in the region to offer medical treatment, nutrition services and therapy for this issue widely seen in teens and young adults.

Another significant project is the Behavioral Health Program launched in Center School District. This first-of-its-kind collaboration is designed to support the social and emotional needs of students by improving access to behavioral health services and education at school and at home.

And most recently, Children’s Mercy launched the Autism and Neurodevelopment Continuity Clinic (ANDCC) – a new pilot program to help support families and caregivers of children three years of age and younger who have recently received an Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis. The ANDCC is designed to supplement – not replace – primary care visits and was created to offer autism-specific guidance for frequent health and behavior concerns, help families access and navigate different therapies, community resources and state disability support programs, and provide emotional support overall.

You Can Help

More information on the program is available at this link. You may also help grow this valuable program here. Every step is important.

“It’s about lighting the way for our children,” Worland said. “It’s looking at how can we be that beacon for them, so they have a shot at having a long life.” 

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