When the Nearest Psychiatric Hospital Has No Beds for 8-Year-Olds


My daughter’s been blessed with pretty good physical health. She’s rarely sick and hasn’t had to miss much school due to illnesses.

Her mental health has been almost the opposite.

Even though she’s been stable over two years now, she’s missed a lot of school due to behavioral health challenges. She was diagnosed in August of 2011 with bipolar disorder, but it wasn’t until over a year later that she had her first hospitalization.

In October of 2012, my husband and I were attempting to get our daughter ready for school. She was having a hard time transitioning back to a school routine after summer, and it was difficult getting her ready for school every day. We saw a lot of aggression and self-injurious behaviors during this time. Finally, one morning, I made the dreaded phone call to our local police to ask for assistance. I truly was hoping we could eventually make it to school that day. The officers who came out didn’t really know how to help us, but they were able to diffuse the situation. My child calmed down enough so we were able to transport her in our vehicle to an emergency room in a neighboring city.

As is typical of any visit to the ER, my daughter was seen by the triage department before being taken back to the ER’s psych ward. It was a scary place for sure. At the time we had insurance through my work that was pretty amazing. We only needed the doctor on call to approve hospitalization for my girl. For all of her future hospitalizations, she was on government insurance. We had to jump through many hoops to get approval on each of those occasions.

The problem we had this time was not with getting someone to agree that my daughter needed hospitalization — it was finding a bed. The hospital we went to didn’t have a place for an 8-year-old with mental health issues. We had arrived at the ER around 10 a.m. that morning. By 6 o’clock that evening the nurses still hadn’t found a bed close by. I finally spoke up and asked what the hold up was. It was then that I discovered they had only been looking in the county we live in. I implored them to look into other counties.

Finally at 9 p.m., a bed was found in different county over 100 miles away. I didn’t care, I was elated one had been found. My husband and I called our therapist who then called the facility to make sure it was a quality hospital. Once the decision was made, we signed tons of paperwork to pre-admit her. I think it was almost midnight before we were told the ambulance that would be transporting our daughter had arrived. At this point my child was calm and almost angelic. The ambulance workers buckled her onto the gurney just to make sure. This was a new and terrifying experience for all of us, so I rode in the back while my husband followed behind in his car. I recall it was about 4 a.m. when we arrived at our destination. It was eerily quiet and dark in the hospital corridors. When we reached the youth unit, we signed more paperwork while the nursing staff took our daughter’s vitals.

Sometimes, when a child is admitted to a hospital, the parents are allowed to see where their child will be staying and in most cases, will be offered a bed to sleep on. In behavioral health hospitals, this is not the case. We were ushered out while our precious baby was whisked off behind a set of locked double doors.

As we stumbled out into the pitch black darkness of the early morning hours, numb and in shock, I looked down at my watch. It was 5 a.m. I still hadn’t slept a wink and was suddenly overcome with exhaustion. My husband and I had no clue where the nearest hotel was. We both looked up at the same time and noticed one right across the street from the hospital. It was a godsend, an expensive godsend, but a godsend nonetheless.

I don’t know why I thought it would be easy to see my daughter that first morning. It was one of the roughest days I had ever experienced up until that point. As the double doors closed at the end of our visit and we left, our beloved child cried gut-wrenching sobs. I knew she was where she needed to be. I knew she was safe. Still, it was hard. The hospital staff encouraged us not to visit every day so we went back home. Over the course of the next 10 days we saw our daughter as often as we could. I talked with her social worker every day.

When she was discharged, we couldn’t find an outpatient program close to our home, so my daughter and I stayed at a nearby motel at the facility she had been inpatient in. As it turned out, my girl was still unstable and required more hospitalization. She was accepted back at this wonderful hospital since she was in their outpatient program. She stayed for another 10 days inpatient before resuming their day treatment program.

While at this facility, the social worker acted as a liaison between myself and the school, and myself and the doctor. I later learned this is the exception, not the norm at most behavioral health hospitals. In fact we never experienced this level of care and concern again. The entire nursing staff worked with our family and our child in a loving, but firm manner. It was rough leaving my pride and joy in the hands of strangers, but at the end of my girl’s stay there, they were almost family. For that I am truly grateful.

As I reflect back on this first hospital stay, I learned a few things about myself and our mental health system.

I learned I’m stronger than I think I am. It was incredibly difficult to leave my child crying behind the double doors with strangers I had just met in a strange city.

I learned about the shortage of beds in our psychiatric hospitals. It’s unfortunate there aren’t enough beds for children my daughter’s age in all of our county.

I also learned how important it was to ask for help. Unlike most families in our situation, we had some incredibly supportive friends. Members of our church family gathered donations that significantly helped us. These funds provided us with gas money for traveling to and from the hospital and money for eating out. These same friends also helped provide us dinners when our daughter returned home again. Many parents are ashamed to admit their child needs this kind of hospitalization, so they stay quiet. We spoke up and stated what we needed.

Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation where your child needs to go to a behavioral health hospital, I encourage you to reach out to friends and family. They may not be able to visit your child, but they can offer practical things like gas cards, gift cards to your favorite fast food restaurants or even taking your other children for play dates. Together we can end the stigma surrounding mental health by speaking up and supporting each other.

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