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Local institutions work to meet ‘profound and startling’ demand for teen mental health services

This stock photo depicts a woman offering support to someone.
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This stock photo depicts a woman offering support to someone.

Two years ago, several leading pediatric health organizations declared a national state of emergency around children's mental health. Since then, institutions, organizations and advocacy groups have been working to provide care and resources to those in need.

But Larry Marx, CEO of Rochester advocacy group The Children’s Agenda, said even with the increase in resources, the demand for services “is like a tidal wave that is crashing on the shore of availability.”

Marx said although it's becoming more socially acceptable to speak about mental health, the issue is treatment and accessibility.

“There is so much need,” he said, “that once somebody identifies themselves as requiring care, and goes to the trouble of seeking care, it becomes a question of if the providers are available, if the care is affordable, and then also how effective the care is.”

Locally, Marx said the number of youths in need of services is “profound and startling.”

Monroe County’s 2022 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that roughly 36% of Rochester City School District students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row. The report also said that almost 9% of city school students attempted suicide within that past year.

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“We really need to work a lot harder on the prevention side of the continuum, and supportive and protective factors that enable kids to handle the normal ups and downs of life,” Marx said.

The Rochester school district has responded by collaborating with the health care systems to place more mental health support in its schools. The University of Rochester Medical Center has also started work on a pediatric mental health urgent care facility. The clinic would provide immediate service to walk-in patients, whatever their needs are.

“It's also a dramatic change to see mental health be the number one priority list,” said Dr. Michael Scharf, psychiatrist-in-chief for Golisano Children’s Hospital. “Every bit of help, which brings more attention to the issue, and helps mobilize our resources toward meeting youth mental health needs, is so appreciated and so critical to making a difference.”

Scharf said the goal of the renovated facility, expected to open in the spring of 2024, is to meet people where they are while expanding the services the system provides. Those services would include assessments with psychiatrists, possible inpatient admission, or de-escalation. It could also serve as a calm place for patients to settle down.

Scharf said the current outpatient source receives more than 100 new requests every week for mental health services. Hospital officials anticipate that the new urgent care center will help alleviate some of that burden and fulfill more of the community’s mental health needs.

“It's only going to work if we are successful in continuing to collaborate with the community,” Scharf said. “To not only meet people where they're at, but to continue to get input and ideas to bring new creativity and new options and interventions for youth and families.”

Racquel Stephen is WXXI's health, equity and community reporter and producer. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.