North Alabama faces challenges treating kids who have attempted suicide or are diagnosed with suicidal ideation

DECATUR, Ala - A new study shows an alarming fact about suicide rates across the U.S. Researchers, used information the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. They tracked the number of children between 5 and 18 who received a diagnosis of suicidal ideation or suicide attempts at emergency rooms each year. Diagnoses of either condition increased from 580,000 in 2007 to 1.12 million in 2015, according to the study, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

The average age of a child at the time of evaluation was 13, and 43% of the visits were in children between 5 and 11.

Medical professionals say there are challenges in north Alabama when it comes to treating these patients.

In 2016 more people died by suicide than homicide - according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.  788 people were lost to suicide that year. 39 of those were people 19 and under.

Amy Gillott is the executive director of the Decatur Morgan Hospital West Campus. She says the state is in a mental health crisis.

"Everywhere you look mental illness is prevalent. It's not going to go away," she said.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people under the age of 24. But treatment options are hard to come by. There is only one inpatient facility for children and teens in north Alabama, Gillott's facility in Decatur.

"And the nearest facility is Vanderbilt or UAB for children and adolescents," Gillott said.

The Decatur facility has a limited number of beds

"We have a ten-bed children's unit and an 18-bed adolescent unit," she explained.

The units service seven area emergency rooms.

"It's not unusual to come in and have four to seven patients waiting in different ers for a bed in our facility," Gillott said.

And those wait times can sometimes last up to four days.

"The longer they wait in the ER, or on the medical floor, they're not handling their problems in the ER. They're not being medicinally treated. They're not getting group therapy and learning coping skills," Gillott said.

Gillott is hopeful for a future with better mental health treatment in Alabama, but she thinks tackling this problem is going to take help from lawmakers and even funding from the state.

Over the next fiscal year, Decatur Morgan West is working to expand its children's unit to be to treat more young people and reduce wait times for beds.

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