Letter: Adolescent treatment facilities on brink of collapse due to the pandemic

Thomas Russell, CEO of Daybreak Youth Services, shares his thoughts on how COVID-19 has changed our communities

Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are those of the author alone and do not reflect the editorial position of ClarkCountyToday.com

Thomas Russell, CEO of Daybreak Youth Services
Thomas Russell, CEO of Daybreak Youth Services

One of the less visible, yet more profound of these changes is the disruption of referrals to inpatient adolescent behavioral health treatment facilities and they are at risk of closing. The lack of referrals creates a threat to the industry, leading to financial losses, facility closures, and a lack of resources for one of the most vulnerable populations, at-risk youth.

Kids facing substance use disorder (SUD) and mental health challenges are usually identified and referred to treatment by education and juvenile justice systems. Both of which have been significantly impacted by COVID-19.

According to The Center of Health and Health Care in Schools, 70-80 percent of youth who receive mental health services are connected to resources through their school. However, during COVID-19, schools moved to virtual instruction, and traditional referral avenues for adolescent treatment have been functioning at reduced levels, or not at all. The absence of meaningful face-to-face contact has greatly reduced the opportunity for educators to recognize youth who need help. Furthermore, this shift placed adolescents in the U.S. out of the reach of disciplinary action, contributing to a dramatic reduction in juvenile court referrals across the nation.

The U.S National Library of Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, reports “A survey of juvenile justice agencies in 33 U.S. states showed a 27 percent reduction in the adolescent detention population between March and May 2020.” This reduction is due to the limitation on detentions for low-level offenses and probation violations, as well as encouragement for law en-forcement to issue citations rather than incarceration.

Because of these changes, along with nationwide staff shortages, adolescent inpatient behavioral health treatment programs find themselves in jeopardy.

Daybreak Youth Services, the largest provider for mental health and SUD treatment for youth on Medicaid in Washington state, is confronting these referral challenges. Normally, Daybreak has the potential to serve 1000 adolescents in its residential and outpatient programs, yet since the beginning of COVID-19, Daybreak has only served less than half that number.

Daybreak is not alone. Many other treatment providers are facing similar circumstances. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health’s (NCBH) recent survey, “54% of organiza-tions have closed programs and 65% have had to turn away patients. As a result, nearly half have decreased work hours for staff, and over a quarter had to lay off employees.” In 2020 the addiction treatment sector lost $4 billion in revenue and up to 1,000 treatment providers due to COVID-19.

The need for treatment will increase. According to the CDC, one in four youth in WA under 18 are struggling with suicidal thoughts and mental health-related visits to emergency rooms for children ages 5-17 are increasing by 24-31 percent. Drug overdose deaths rose by close to 30 percent in the U.S in 2020, the highest number ever recorded.

If Daybreak and other treatment providers fail, there will be no place for our young people to get the help they need. The cost to our society will be significant and there will be an even greater increase in crime, homelessness, and incarceration.

Our youth need us to assure adequate funds are available to sustain treatment programs in our state. We urge schools, our juvenile justice system, social service providers, and anyone working with youth to remain vigilant in connecting youth with appropriate SUD and mental health treat-ment and prioritize their health. We cannot let our youth fall through the systemic cracks created by COVID-19.

Thomas Russell is the CEO for Daybreak Youth Services and former CEO for Adventist Health – Portland with over 35 years experience in hospitals, clinics, and managed care. He lives near Vancouver.

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