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With Need Increasing, Cambridge Health Alliance To Add New Psychiatric Inpatient Beds

With the coronavirus already taking a toll on many people's mental health, plans are underway to expand inpatient psychiatric care — much of it for youth — in Greater Boston.

Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) is planning to add a total of 64 inpatient psychiatric beds and provide more services to high risk populations. Doctors there say emergency rooms, already stretched during the pandemic, are further challenged by so-called "ED boarding" where patients stay in hospital emergency departments until they can find appropriate psychiatric placements.

Dr. Jacob Venter, division chief for child and adolescent psychiatry at CHA, says the need for more mental health beds for youth has reached "crisis proportions." The pandemic and social isolation has exacerbated anxiety, depression and increased difficulty with self-regulation among children and adolescents.

"A shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds has been a chronic problem and the COVID pandemic has really added to it to the extent that children, and sometimes adults, wait in emergency rooms for quite a long time before they get a bed," Venter said. "Kids wait up to a month in order to get a bed in an inpatient setting."

CHA will add 42 new child, adolescent and specialized autism spectrum/neurodevelopmental beds at its Somerville campus, meaning it will have a total of 69 beds for young people there. CHA will consolidate its psychiatric services for youth in Somerville and create a center focused on specialized treatment for young people with neurodevelopmental needs.

"The needs of these patients are very different," Venter said. "There are different specialties that need to be involved. And generally psychiatric units are not very well equipped to take care of them."

CHA also will convert units at CHA Cambridge Hospital into adult units with 22 beds. Eight of these beds will be designed to treat high-acuity adult patients who often have difficulty finding a psychiatric placement.

CHA worked with the state in planning for the psychiatric bed expansion, which was approved by the hospital's board of trustees this month. The first youth beds are expected to be operational in the spring and the rest by the end of 2021. CHA expects the renovations for the adult beds to be completed by the spring of 2022.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg when we talk about inpatient care," Venter said. "There is also care that needs to be provided in the community in step-down units, intensive outpatient treatment and partial programs. So this does not address the full continuum of care that's necessary to help our youth and families. But it's exciting to provide some hope and future orientation to families."

Gov. Charlie Baker recently approved $10 million in funding for the creation of new inpatient mental health acute care beds, with priority given to beds for children and adolescents in underserved areas of the state.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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