Ending the ED 'Boarding' of Youth With Mental Health Needs

David C. Rettew, MD

July 08, 2021

All over the country, high numbers of youth experiencing a mental health crisis are presenting to emergency departments, where they are assessed to need an inpatient psychiatric hospitalization but then wait for days and sometimes weeks with nowhere to go. In Colorado, one of the largest children's hospitals in the state declared their own state of emergency to call attention to the problem after facing a 72% increase in volume for mental health emergency visits.1 

This problem is hardly new, but the COVID pandemic has appeared to take the problem to new heights. In Massachusetts, the "boarding" of youth awaiting psychiatric hospitalization has more than doubled since the pandemic, according to a recent report from National Public Radio.2 Like many public health problems, there is evidence that the burden falls disproportionately on groups that have faced health inequities in the past.3

What is causing this? The proximal cause is fairly simple: Acute mental health problems in youth are rising while the supply of intensive services is dropping. The number of available inpatient psychiatric beds has steadily been falling over the years even prior to the COVID pandemic, which then took more capacity offline because of staffing shortages and requirements for additional distance between patients (such as eliminating double-occupancy rooms).

Meanwhile, levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidality have been rising in youth for reasons still not adequately understood.

The stories of these youth and their families waiting for stabilization and treatment are heartbreaking, and nobody disagrees with the idea that a child being confined to a small ED room for days is not good care. What is debated, however, is how best to fix this problem both in the short and long term.

In the eyes of many, the ultimate solution is clear: more inpatient beds. This may indeed be required for some areas, but a closer look at how an entire mental health system operates often reveals both more complex problems and some alternative potential solutions. For example, hospital staff will often acknowledge that they have patients ready for discharge but who need more intensive step-down services like a residential treatment or partial hospital program to be able to do so safely.

You can't have hospital admissions if you don't have hospital discharges, so without good step-down options patients back up and the regular flow is disrupted. Upstream of the crisis that sends many youth to EDs is another opportunity area, as these tipping points are often seen coming by others, including their pediatricians, but referrals to clinicians or programs that might bring improvement and prevent the need for an ED evaluation are also in short supply.

In the short term, efforts are being directed by some EDs to make the physical space more therapeutic for individuals experiencing mental health problems and to offer more actual treatment when people are there. This can take the form of having a secure space in which to move around, or being offered some supportive psychotherapy sessions and possible medication changes while in the ED.

It can also involve simple things like the availability of books, video games, and toys to help pass the time. Such efforts are greatly needed, and many feel that the notion of mental health emergencies somehow being outside the "lane" of emergency medicine training and practice should have been retired long ago.

Medium-term solutions can involve the standing up of more intensive mental health programs that are below the level of inpatient hospitalizations, such as intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization programs, or improved mobile response services that go beyond triage and actually bring supports and techniques directly to families in need. As mentioned, these levels of services can provide both a step-down option that facilitates a hospital discharge and a measure that can prevent the need for some hospitalizations in the first place.

Looking over the long term, health care systems and governments need to evaluate the degree to which more hospital or residential beds may still be needed, despite our best efforts to improve flow and prevent mental health crises from originating. This can often be a contentious topic, however, and securing public dollars to support more beds is often quite difficult even where there seems to be a clear need.

Hovering over nearly all potential solutions, of course, is the challenge of finding the mental health workforce to implement any new programs and initiatives without stealing from services already in place. This dilemma speaks to ongoing issues of parity between resources devoted to mental health versus physical health care. Some mental health care organizations are currently trying to recruit new workers with bonuses or new incentives, but longer-term fixes are likely to require a hard look at the degree to which our actual commitment to mental health care matches the political rhetoric.

Discussions of how to solve the problem of ED boarding can easily deteriorate into a lot of finger pointing of what somebody else should be doing. The truth is, however, that there are many actions that can be taken by those in very different roles.

While many of these steps require efforts from mental health organizations, emergency departments, government agencies, and hospitals, there are things that can be done within the purview of the primary care clinician. First, look for opportunities to increase your collaboration with mental health professionals through initiatives such as integrated care programs.

The Health Resources and Services Administration is now using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to strengthen integrated care programs across the country and new opportunities may well be available soon to get additional mental health supports to primary care offices. Second, get involved and advocate for the mental health of your patients by communicating with other groups to make other potential solutions a reality.

Children and adolescents waiting for days to get the mental health care they need and deserve is an unacceptable situation that we can and must overcome. Quick fixes will be hard to find, but with some collaborative effort, forward thinking, and, yes, financial investments, we can find solutions that reflect the principle of mental health being a foundation for all health.

Rettew is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, Burlington. Follow him on Twitter @PediPsych. His latest book is "Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows About the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood."


1. Bebinger M. Kids in mental health crisis can languish for days inside ERs. National Public Radio. 2021 Jun 23.

2. Tabachnik S. Colorado health leaders declare youth mental health state of emergency: "Our kids have run out of resilience." Denver Post. 2021 May 25.

3. Nash KA et al. Pediatrics. 2021:147:5. e2020030692.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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