State, UNC to open more kids’ psych beds to address worsening mental health crisis

Chris Seward/cseward@newsobserver.com

A substance abuse treatment facility in Butner will be repurposed as a psychiatric hospital for children to address a “behavioral health tsunami,” the Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday.

The state will partner with UNC Health to convert the R.J. Blackley Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center into 54 inpatient psychiatric beds, which are expected to come online next summer.

Patients of the drug treatment facility will have the option to seek care at the state’s two other centers or from private providers in their area.

“There’s not going to be a reduction in the availability of substance use disorder services,” said Kody Kinsley, secretary of the health department.

All permanent employees of the drug abuse treatment facility will also be given the option to switch jobs within the Department of Health.

UNC administrators said they hope the new facility will help address a worsening mental health crisis among North Carolina’s children. Demand for urgent and significant psychiatric treatment has dramatically outpaced the number of inpatient beds the state has to offer, state officials said.

As a result, more than 50 children and adolescents are waiting for a bed to open on any given day, according to state data.

In the meantime, those children often must wait in an emergency room for weeks or months, which mental health advocates say can exacerbate mental illness.

Samantha Meltzer-Brody, the chair of UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of psychiatry, said the severity of illness, and the number of children feeling suicidal is unlike anything doctors have seen in recent history.

“If you were to walk through the psych emergency department at UNC or anywhere else, you would see massive suffering and families literally living in the emergency department,” she said. “This is a very critical step forward.”

Teddy Rosenbluth covers science and health care for The News & Observer in a position funded by Duke Health and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.