KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This week students all over the Kansas City area are heading back to school, which can be exciting but also bring up stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.

Before 2020, experts were already saying young people needed more mental healthcare options to overcome stress in school and online. When COVID-19 shut down school and many extra-curricular activities, a bad problem only got worse.

The American Association of Pediatrics and other national mental healthcare organizations are declaring a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, saying lawmakers need to send money and resources to provide for care for young people like Eli Helm.

“The first time I got here, I really didn’t want to be here,” admits Helm, who was in KidsTLC’s residential program in Olathe twice. “I went through a lot of trauma when I was younger and didn’t know really how to express how I felt or say how I felt.”

He’s hardly alone.

Research looking at nearly 30 studies including more than 80,000 young people around the world showed that child and adolescent depression have doubled compared to pre-pandemic estimates.

KidsTLC President and CEO Dr. Erin Dugan’s intensive residential program gave about 65 kids a place to live while they go through treatment before the pandmic when it decided they’d buy a former skilled nursing facility next door in an attempt to nearly double the number of kids they could house.

The waitlist for residential programs like her’s across the state routinely has more than 100 young people on it, which is longer that it was pre-pandemic.

“Same issues, but they’re multiplied now,” Dugan said. “Coming out of the sense of isolation, [clients are] more fearful, more stressed, more depression, lots of anxiety.”

The expansion is meant to better address the growing need across the state.

“We thought we could take almost half or a third of the state waitlist and be able to bring them here on our campus and really take a chunk out of that state waitlist,” Dugan said.

The facility is finished, but the next obstacle is finding enough staff members to safely opperate it. $2 million from the Kansas lawmakers to residential facilities like KidsTLC has helped. More than $500,000 came to KidsTLC, allowing them to hire more people at higher wages in an attempt to bring in and keep more workers.

“Certainly Kansas has made a huge first step of putting money into the hands of organizations in order to hire the staff needed to take care of kids with significant mental health needs,” Dugan said.

Dugan said she needs about 100 staff members before the end of the year to care for young people like Eli, helping a growing number of kids find their way through.

“If it wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be able to do so well now,” Helm said.


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