A $3.8 million gift from the Samerian Foundation has paved the way for Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health to open a new behavioral health unit that will provide mental health services for some of the state’s youngest — and most vulnerable — patients.
When the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit opens in July, it will have 20 beds, double the number in IU Health’s current pediatric program, housed at IU Health Methodist Hospital. The Samerian Foundation is named for Cindy Simon Skjodt and Paul Skjodt’s three children, Samantha, Erik and Ian.
Moving the unit to Riley will allow for more comprehensive care for children and adolescents with mental health issues, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder and eating disorders. At Riley, psychiatric specialists will be able to consult with their colleagues in other pediatric specialties, a trend seen throughout the field.
“It’s difficult to separate psychiatric medicine from the rest of medicine,” said Dr. Thomas McAllister, Albert E. Sterne professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “This is an opportunity to improve our care for kids with psychiatric trouble.”
In some instances, children with psychiatric troubles also have physical disease. At Riley, these patients will have access to specialists who can help them. In other cases, mental illness may mask a physical problem — or vice versa. The new location will make it easier for doctors to work together to come up with treatment plans for their patients.
“You have to make sure you’ve checked the whole child. We’re not just brains, we’re not just bodies,” said Mary Bedel, president of the board of NAMI of Indiana, a mental health advocacy organization.
Doubling the number of beds will also have an impact, experts in children’s mental health say, because mental health services for children are few and far between.
In many areas of the state, children have to wait five to six months to see a psychiatric specialist. Facilities that offer inpatient treatment are few and far between.
Suicide rates have increased 24 percent in the past 15 years, Bedel said, showing the need for proper diagnoses and treatments. In 2014, the suicide rate among teens and young adults, ages 15 to 24, was 11.6 per 100,000 people, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Attention on mental health issues tends to focus on adults rather than youths, said Stephen McCaffrey, president and chief executive officer of Mental Health America of Indiana. That priority comes at a cost.
“It’s natural when people have the greatest illness, that’s where you tend to focus, but what we realize is prevention and early intervention is the most cost-effective, most meaningful way to make a difference in people’s lives,” McCaffrey said.
The lack of mental health services for children and the belief that Riley provides first-rate care in this area led Simon Skjodt to make her gift, she said.
She and a number of Riley and IU Health officials are expected to announce the gift at an unveiling of the unit Monday.
“The whole area of mental health has been overlooked, and I think a lot of it is due to stigma and people not understanding the scope and how it really does affect other health care issues,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s more awareness now, but we need to make it better. If we take one step at a time, we can help.”
Riley aims to do just that with its new unit.
Most of the patients treated at the Methodist unit receive care five days a week in a partial hospitalization program that allows them to spend nights and weekends at home. The unit is full 80 to 90 percent of time, said Jeffrey Parobechek, clinical manager for the unit.
At Riley, the space is designed to care for patients who may want to hurt themselves or others. Plexiglass, not glass, frames cover the artwork on the walls. The rooms feature double-thick windows and integrated blinds to prevent patients from harming themselves.
Two safe rooms exist with rubber foam on the walls and a floor that prevent patients from hurting themselves if they bang their head against the wall or throw themselves down on the floor. The Methodist unit did not have these types of rooms.
Even the doctor’s exam room has been designed with mental, not physical, health in mind. The examination bed is Murphy-style, allowing the doctor to fold it up during parts of an exam that it isn’t needed.
Despite all of the medical bells and whistles, Riley staff rely more on talking to patients than doling out drugs, Parobechek said.
“One of the things that I feel sets us apart from other units in greater Indianapolis is we have a strong emphasis on coping skills, on finding ways to de-escalate rather than going to pharmaceuticals,” he said.
A new space, complete with a modern kitchen for patients and a classroom with up-to-date technology, may improve not only patients’ experience but also staff morale, McAllister said.
“To those laboring in the field, it’s a really important message that Riley has made this commitment to this program and has been able to marshal the resources to make it a nice physical space,” he said.
Call IndyStar reporter Shari Rudavsky at (317) 444-6354. Follow her on Twitter: @srudavsky.