Our kids are in crisis: Expanded HMH/Carrier Clinic behavioral health facility will address growing need — care for children as young as 7

HMH CEO Garrett: $40M project, which will add 52 much-needed beds, could be completed as soon as next summer

Here’s where we are on the behavioral crisis in New Jersey — and around the country.

Hackensack Meridian Health, through the Carrier Clinic, was thrilled to hold a groundbreaking Friday for a 43,000-square-foot, 52-bed facility in Belle Mead that HMH officials hope will be open in 2025.

HMH CEO Bob Garrett calls the $40 million effort an expansion and modernization of the existing pediatric unit, one that will bring desperately needed beds to care for a growing class of patients who struggle to find a place for treatment — kids ages 7-11.

That’s right, grade schoolers as young as first grade are in need of care — whether it be a few days for stabilization after an incident or weeks/months for more in-depth treatment.

Garrett, who has been a leader on increasing avenues for behavioral health care for years, said even he is astonished by the growing need.

“In 40 years in health care, I’ve never seen anything like this — it’s just heartbreaking,” he said. “I never thought we would see 7-year-olds — first-graders and second-graders — contemplating and attempting suicide.”

The numbers show it to be true.

Last year, the various emergency rooms connected to Hackensack Meridian Health saw more than 10,000 kids in a mental-health crises, Garrett said. Collectively, a statewide Behavioral Health Collaborative — which places behavioral specialists in pediatrician offices and other similar settings — saw more than 200,000 children in crisis, referring more than 20,000 to facilities such as the one HMH is building.

That the kids are being identified is big news. But it doesn’t address a big issue: Most facilities do not treat younger kids. The expanded facility detailed Friday will mark the first time Carrier Clinic will be able to care for those under the age of 12.

Bob Garrett. (File photo)

The need for pediatric care clearly is there.

Garrett said studies show one out of three high school girls said they have considered suicide — and that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among children, ages 10-14, across the country, he said.

What to do?

It starts with facilities such as this one. Of course, it takes money, too.

Garrett gave special thanks to the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, which donated $10 million. He also gave thanks to Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Legislature — particularly Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-HIllsborough) and Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough), who helped steer $10 million in state funds to the project.

The facility could hold a groundbreaking next summer, a timeline that is more dependent on acquiring building supplies than getting the work done.

Garrett knows the 52 beds are just a start.

It’s why HMH has championed — and will continue to push — telehealth options for kids in crisis, making such a service available in all HMH facilities, including emergency rooms.

“If a child or an adolescent comes to our emergency department in crisis, telehealth is available at all hours — so they can be seen remotely by a psychiatrist in a matter of minutes,” he said.

It’s why the Hackensack Meridian School of Health is promoting all aspects of behavioral health, including residencies in psychiatry.

“There’s a big shortage of counselors, mental health technicians, nurse practitioners and psychiatrists, especially child psychiatrists,” he said. “We’ve been pretty successful promoting residency programs in psychiatry, and we’ve seen a significant number of medical students now going into the field.”

It’s why Garrett, at a national health forum earlier this spring, called for a “Mental Health Moonshoot” similar to one the country used to wage war on cancer.

“It reduced death rates from cancer by 30% in a generation,” he said.

It’s why Garrett heaped praise on the Cohen Foundation for their $10 million donation, hoping it will spur more.

“It’s going to take more public-private partnerships moving forward,” he said.

It’s why Garrett and HMH are working so hard to reduce the stigma around behavioral health needs.

“Most people either have experienced behavioral health or mental health issues within their own families, or they have friends or neighbors that have,” he said. “I think part of our mission is to take away the stigma that exists around mental illness.”

We have no choice, Garrett said. To see the rapid rise in cases involving kids is beyond concerning, he said.

“We’re seeing more and more young kids,” he said. “When I was that age, this wasn’t an issue. But, we live in a different world now. There are a lot of factors and issues that go into it. Regardless of the reason, we need to address and treat behavioral health issues.”