Lafayette had no beds for kids needing mental health treatment — until now

A red brick wall with a white and red sign on it stands in front of a red brick building surrounded by a lawn and trees.
A sign signals marks the entrance to Vermilion Behavioral Health Systems’ mental health hospital just outside of Lafayette’s city limits on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2023. Photo by Alena Maschke

Social media, in tandem with prolonged isolation wrought by the Covid pandemic, has led to more pervasive mental health issues among young people, even children. But, for those not quite in the adolescent phase of their lives yet, aged 7-11, there was nowhere in Acadiana to turn for inpatient mental health treatment.

Vermilion Behavioral Health Systems, the only local mental health treatment facility offering inpatient services to patients under 18, recently added the first Lafayette-area beds serving that age group. Starting last week, the facility dedicated 10 of its 78 beds exclusively to the treatment of children.

Children of that age group are being treated for depression, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and bipolar disorder, said Vermilion CEO Amy Apperson.

“It’s hard for adults to wrap their minds around the fact that children this young could be facing things this serious,” Apperson said. But, she noted, “they have the exact same emotions that we have, they suffer just like we do.” And having so little life experience to fall back on, stress or trauma can have an outsized impact on children’s mental health, she added.

The expansion is the latest step in Vermilion’s efforts to focus more on younger patients, for whom no other inpatient resources exist locally. Until now, the only other facilities serving patients this young were located in Shreveport and New Orleans, requiring families to drop off their children hours away from home for inpatient treatment.

Since 2021, the facility has doubled its capacity for treating adolescents from 22 to 44 beds. Now, an additional 10 beds previously allocated for adult patients were converted to the new children’s unit. Eventually, Apperson said, she’s hoping to focus entirely on children and adolescents.

“You have a lot of adult inpatient psychiatric facilities in the Lafayette area,” Apperson said. “I don’t want to be in competition with the community, I want us to stand apart.”

And although a collaboration between Oceans Healthcare and Ochsner Lafayette General is hoping to bring more inpatient beds, including a unit for adolescents, to the Lafayette area by way of a newly built facility, there’s no firm timeline for construction yet.

Following the pandemic, Apperson said mental health services for young people have emerged as one of the largest unmet needs in the area, elevated by a culture that is increasingly open to talking about and addressing those needs — but often lacks the proper resources to do so.

“We’ve seen it increase exponentially,” said Apperson, who has been working with adolescent patients since the 1990s and was recently invited to testify in front of state legislators on the state of mental health care for young people in Louisiana. “It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it in health care.”

The reasons are manifold, Appleton and Vermilion’s director of clinical and outpatient services, Sheena Stakes pointed out. The rules for caring for children and adolescents in an inpatient setting are more stringent because of their age, and young patients require more coordination between medical staff and their families, making it a daunting endeavor for providers.

Meanwhile isolation during the pandemic and the digitalization of human interactions through social media have left their mark on young minds.

“There’s a two year delay in their development of social skills,” Appleton said of the kids kept isolated from their peers during the pandemic. “It’s a whole set of new coping [mechanisms] that they have to learn.” Where those coping mechanisms fail often becomes apparent when they start school — again or for the first time — which is why many referrals come around the time the new school year begins.

But for the youngest patients, there was no place locally to send them until Vermilion’s unit opened last week. Often the first point of contact for anyone seeking inpatient placement for young patients, Vermilion was turning away several children a week, Appleton noted.

“You want to fill that void, so that providers can feel like you have somewhere to send them to get the care that they need,” Appleton said. Now, she hopes that having this resource will have a ripple effect, creating more mental health resources for children in the region.