The Mighty Logo

How to Tell If You Should Take Your Child to the Mental Health Hospital

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

For anyone who has faced a mental health condition, one of the scariest parts can be going to a hospital for emergency care. If you’re a parent, the thought of having to take your child can be even more terrifying. You want to make sure your child gets the care they need, but it’s hard to know what to do and when, especially because, there is no quick fix or treatment. You can’t put a cast on depression or stitch up suicidal thoughts. And I would know. I have lived with mental illness most of my life. I was diagnosed when I was 15 years old.

There are many resources about how to discern a mental health emergency for adults, but what about for kids? How can you tell if your child needs to be admitted to the hospital for their mental health? Can we take care of them at home or do they need more intensive professional resources? These aren’t easy questions to answer, and it will be different for every child. To provide some guidance, we asked a few experts to weigh in, and this is what they had to say.

What are some of the most common mental health issues kids and teens face?

From depression and anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and adjustment disorders, children can — and do — face a slew of mental health issues. However, their concerns vary from their teachers, parents, grandparents, and older peers. They also manifest in a very different way.

“These [illnesses] can all show up in a myriad of different ways, depending on the personality of the child,” Jodi Aman, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “Anxiety… I’m So Done With You,” told The Mighty. “Some common things to look out for include not wanting to do things they normally enjoy, wanting to be alone a lot, being sad, not wanting to get together with friends, being clingy, and needing extra reassurance. Doing better or worse in school can also be a sign things are off.”

How can parents know if and when it is time to seek emergency mental health care?

While it can be hard to know when to contact 911 or another emergency mental health resource, Lindsay Gerber, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, told The Mighty first and foremost, you can and should get external help if your child is in imminent danger. 

“Whenever we think about hospitalization, the one thing that comes to mind is safety,” Gerber said. “If your child is doing something or saying something that you feel is a direct threat to their safety and/or the safety of someone else in your home, you may want to consider hospitalization.”

This is, of course, discretionary and requires you to know your child. However, it is important that you really listen to your kids and that you trust your gut.

“If something does not feel right to you, go to the emergency room because it’s best to have a trained professional assess your child in person.”

Is the ER always the best choice for emergency mental health services? 

The answer to this question is complicated and complex. After all, we typically tell people to go to the ER for an emergency, but some emergency rooms are not properly equipped to handle mental health matters. What’s more, many ER staffers lack crisis intervention training. For that reason, Aman suggested discussing your options with your child’s pediatrician or mental health care provider ahead of time.

“Medical providers or counselors from school often suggest going to the ER for their own liability; however, it’s best to make a plan with a social worker or mental health professional that knows the situation [and your child] and can make an appropriate clinical plan.”

There are some instances that necessitate an ER visit. If your child is paranoid or hearing voices, using alcohol or drugs, threatening to hurt themselves or others, or has made a suicide attempt, immediate intervention should occur. However, Aman noted that the emergency room should also be a last-line resource.

“Pediatric inpatient psychiatric units are rarely therapeutic and can be extra hard on children who are not used to being away from home,” Aman said. “If your child already has a mental health care provider, call them and request a crisis appointment. Your provider will be able to assess the situation and help you make a plan.”

What should parents expect from the admissions process if their child is kept for evaluation or observation?

A few things will happen if you bring your child to the emergency room. First, an intake professional will sit with you and your child to determine your reason for being in the ER. Next, your child will be evaluated by a mental health professional to figure out if hospitalization is necessary — though this evaluation can take some time, especially if the ER is busy or does not have psychiatric emergency services. If hospitalization is required, your child will be moved to a psychiatric children’s unit or an adult psychiatric unit, if they are old enough.

According to the Maryland Coalition of Families, you “have a say in what hospital your child is referred to, but the choice may be influenced by your insurance coverage and/or the availability of beds.”

And shortly after admission, you will be assigned a case clinician who will help you and your child during their hospital stay. The role of the case clinician is to support you and your child and help establish a treatment plan.

That said, Gerber suggested researching your local hospital prior to arriving or well in advance of a potential crisis. 

“Look for a hospital that has a psychiatric emergency room. That is going to be the best option because it’s going to streamline the process,” she said.

How can parents best support their child’s mental health after they are discharged from a hospital?

While getting your child emergency mental health services is imperative — especially if they are in danger — caring for your child after their release isn’t just important, it is integral to their success.

“Whether your kid comes home from the hospital that same day or your child goes on to have an inpatient hospitalization that could last seven to 14 days, know this: Your child is and will be very vulnerable when they’re released,” Gerber said.

You should work with the hospital and your child’s treatment team before leaving to create a safety plan. You should know the warning signs that may necessitate readmission or a return. You should have follow-up care in place before your child is discharged, like making an appointment with a psychiatrist or psychologist. And above all, you should be a parent.

Support your child. Empathize with your child, and listen — without shame, judgement, stigma, or fear.

“Help your child feel normalized, and ensure they know that you’ll get through this together,” Aman said.

For more information about emergency mental health care or to find mental health resources in your area, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website or contact their helpline at 1-800-662-HELP or text START to 741-741 to be immediately connected to a trained crisis counselor.

Header image via tatyana_tomsickova/Getty Images

Originally published: September 14, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home