Sunday, January 12, 2003

Kids mental health center opens

College Hill complex focus on long-term treatment

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center has opened a $9 million center for child psychiatric care that could go a long way toward closing one of the Tristate's biggest gaps in health care services.

For several years, Greater Cincinnati has suffered a severe lack of longer-term residential treatment services for children with complex, chronic mental illnesses - places that provide intense treatment and counseling for months at a time.

To get such treatment, families have sent children to Columbus, Athens, Indianapolis, Louisville, even as far as Massachusetts, Iowa and Arizona. In fact, a group of Hamilton County agencies has been spending more than $6 million a year to send dozens of children out of town for care that hasn't been available here.

But now, there's the College Hill Campus.

The three-story, 48-bed facility sits on 27 acres of rolling, mostly wooded hills off Hamilton Avenue. Some children moved into the renovated center Dec. 16, but other parts of the facility are waiting for final touches. A grand opening is Thursday

"No other pediatric hospital in the country has this level of intensity of service. In fact, most children's hospitals have distanced themselves from doing psychiatric care," said Dr. Mike Sorter, medical director for the hospital's division of psychiatry.

The campus has played a role in mental health care as far back as 1873, when the Emerson A. North psychiatric hospital was founded. After Emerson A. North, an adult facility, closed in 1994, the campus was occupied by Phoenix International, a medical clinical trials company that closed in 2000.

Now, the renovated center features 16 offices for outpatient therapy, four 12-bed wings for residential treatment, and a 12-bed unit to open this summer that will focus on children with combinations of mental illness, mental retardation and other developmental disabilities.

There's a gym, a weight room, a climbing wall, baseball and soccer fields, and plans for a building to house pets and plants for residents to care for as part of their therapy. There's even an eight-classroom school run by the Cincinnati Public Schools.

A range of activities is needed because many residents will live there for months and some will stay a year or more.

"We will have some students graduating from high school in this facility," said Mike Sherbun, senior clinical director of psychiatric services.

The opening is winning praise from families and other mental health agencies as a long-overdue step.

"The community has definitely needed some way to deal with children with higher-end needs," said Dr. Walter Smitson, director of the Central Clinic, one of the city's largest mental health care agencies.

From 1998 through late last year, Chandra Mathews-Smith, director of direct services for Beech Acres, sent 80 to 100 children with severe problems out of town each year through the Creative Connections program, a joint-venture of several county agencies. The program coordinated care for more than 300 of Hamilton County's most extremely troubled youth a year. When short-term hospital stays, outpatient therapy and therapeutic foster care services didn't work, the program had very few local options, she said.

"I really commend Children's Hospital for taking on this challenge," Ms. Mathews-Smith said.

Improving mental health care for children has been a growing state and national issue. Concerns range from school shootings and other violent juvenile crime, to children suffering physical and sexual abuse, to life-threatening eating disorders, and to an annual teen suicide rate nearly double the number of children dying from cancer.

The fact that the Tristate had fallen short in services for its most troubled youth was detailed by the Enquirer in a December 2000 expose called "Nowhere to Turn."

Much has occurred since, including Cincinnati Children's acquiring the College Hill Campus site; the Junior League of Cincinnati launching its MindPeace project in September to raise awareness of mental illness, and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, announcing a five-year $625,000 project in December to begin improving what officials described as the Tristate's "fragmented" and "ineffective" behavioral health care system.

The College Hill Campus is just one part of an extensive expansion and reorganization of psychiatric care at Cincinnati Children's.

The hospital, which saw a few hundred cases in the early 1990s, got more than 3,000 psychiatric emergency visits in 2001, up about 72 percent from the year before.

As recently as last year, up to a dozen children a day were overflowing into regular hospital rooms because the facility's psychiatric unit was full.

Besides the College Hill Campus, the hospital has added psychiatric beds at its main campus in Corryville and launched a "Psychiatric Intake Response Center," where pediatricians, agencies and others can call to direct children to the proper level of service - including community services not provided by Cincinnati Children's.

Beyond addressing a need for residential care, Dr. Sorter said the College Hill Campus will make it easier to get involved in clinical trials of new medications. It also will be easier to coordinate care for troubled youth who also have other medical needs, be they injuries, sexually transmitted diseases or developmental disorders.

"Our goal is to become a national leader in improving child mental health," Mr. Sherbun said.

The money to buy and renovate the College Hill Campus was provided entirely by the Convalescent Hospital for Children, an affiliated charity group that raises funds for children with chronic health care needs. The group's funding comes from private donations, an annual antique auction and other events.

An open house and grand opening for the College Hill Campus will be held Thursday. Tours are scheduled throughout the day, with a dedication at 6 p.m. For information, call (513) 636-4124.


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