Children’s Hospital Colorado takes on mental health crisis

Child psychiatrist appointed Mental Health-in-Chief

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In the wake of declaring a state of emergency for pediatric mental health in May 2021, Children’s Hospital Colorado — CHC — continues to invest more resources to better support children, youth and families in along the Front Range.

To help oversee this challenge, CHC appointed Dr. K. Ron-Li Liaw, a child psychiatrist practicing at the hospital’s Anschutz Campus location, as the inaugural Mental Health-in-Chief.

Liaw will help shape and oversee child mental health vision and strategy, operations, quality, safety and workforce development system-wide for CHC. CHC has 15 locations statewide, including campuses in Highlands Ranch, Aurora, Denver and Broomfield in the Denver metro area.

Last year, Children’s Hospital Colorado stepped up, calling the mental health crisis impacting young patients unacceptable. Officials labeled it a crisis, calling on state lawmakers to step up and start making changes to truly address the growing problems.

After another roundtable discussion in the fall, CHC continued to press, saying some work had been done since they first raised concerns last May, but stressed it has not been enough. Administrators at CHC have focused on the fact that fixing the mental health problems for youths, teens and young adults in Colorado is not a short-term issue, committing to a long-term fight to find solutions.

Appointing Liaw is the latest step for CHC in making the commitment to find answers to the growing problem that is happening not just in Colorado but nationwide.

“Now is the time for Colorado to design and build an integrated system of care for the kids and families of this dynamic and beautiful state,” said Liaw. “I am impressed with the mission, vision, footprint and the depth of humble expertise I’ve found at Children’s Hospital Colorado, along with tremendous partners who are all driving a movement of change for children’s health. We want Colorado to be an innovative and effective model, and I’m excited to be part of the momentum and part of the team that’s going to get us there.”

Liaw also serves as the chair of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at CHC, where she holds the Cannon Y. & Lyndia Harvey Chair in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“We’re clearly seeing at Children’s Hospital Colorado the disastrous downstream impacts of an already-broken pediatric mental health system that’s been further strained by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said President and CEO Jena Hausmann. “We will continue to do all we can to provide high-quality mental health services to those children in need while also continuing to advocate with our community partners for systemic change at every level — local, state and federal — to help solve the youth mental health crisis.”

According to CHC administrators who have spoken out over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the youth mental health crisis and further exposed the lack of a wrap-around mental health system in Colorado.

Doctors and pediatricians say children and families are experiencing tremendous stress driven by disruptions in daily routine, social isolation, financial insecurity and grief. The lack of screening, preventive services, mental health providers, training programs, and psychiatric beds and residential treatment facilities for young people in crisis leads to a continued cycle of trauma.

According to data provided by CHC, the inpatient psychiatric unit has been full for well over a year and the inpatient medical units and ICUs continue to admit multiple patients with suicidal ideation.

From January through mid-October 2021, 70% more children came to CHC emergency departments due to a mental health crisis, compared to the same time period before the pandemic in 2019.

In 2021, CHC saw more than 6,500 emergency department behavioral health visits of children in crisis, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Huasmann said Children’s Hospital Colorado is pleased to welcome Liaw because of her vision, energy and leadership, as the healthcare provider works to reimagine its response to crisis care and expand mental health inpatient, outpatient and day treatment services across the system.

Liaw will be representing Children’s Hospital Colorado as a 2021-22 Aspen Institute Ascend Fellow and joining a national network of leaders to transform the trajectory of children and families across the country.

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