OC Sees Spike in Children Hospitalized for Mental Crises and Self-Harm

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

An ambulance is loaded with equipment next to the Hoag emergency room entrance.

Orange County has experienced an alarming rise in children going to the emergency room for mental illness crises and suicide attempts, according to a new report from county officials, nonprofit groups and university researchers.

The rate at which children were hospitalized for serious mental illnesses rose 87 percent from 2008 to 2017, the latest available year of data, according to the annual Conditions of Children in Orange County report.

Orange County supervisors chose to not talk about the report when they officially received and filed it Tuesday morning during their regularly-scheduled public meeting.

The rate of teens and pre-teens hospitalized for intentional self-harm injuries grew 32 percent between 2010 and 2017, the most recent available year of data, according to the report.

“Many Orange County children are facing economic hardship, as one in six children live in poverty and nearly 30,000 students experience insecure housing,” the report adds, citing a 76-percent increase in children living with insecure housing.

[Click here to read the new Conditions of Children report.]

The report comes on the heels of the suicide last week of 10 year-old Allison Wendel, who lived in Santa Ana. Police were looking into reports she was bullied and were examining her social media activity, according to the Orange County Register.

In 2017 alone, Orange County teens and pre-teens went to the emergency room 861 times for injuries caused by self-harm, according to the report.

Orange County has long faced a severe shortage of psychiatric beds, particularly for children, prompting many children to end up in emergency rooms that are less prepared to treat mental health crises.

Until an 18-bed psychiatric center opened in 2018, there were no mental health beds for children under 12 years old in Orange County.

The report also noted a sharp rise in unstable housing and poverty that can harm kids’ emotional well-being. Researchers have linked OC’s growing housing affordability crisis and poverty largely to an ever-worsening housing shortage and stagnant wages.

“Research has demonstrated that living in poverty has a wide range of negative effects on the physical and mental health and well-being of children,” the report states.
School district data show a 76 percent jump in children living in insecure housing over the past nine years – defined as “living unsheltered or in motels, shelters, parks and doubling- or tripling-up in a home.”

“The high mobility, trauma and poverty associated with homelessness and insecure housing create educational barriers, low school attendance, developmental, physical and emotional problems for students,” the report states.

A total of 29,315 Orange County students lived in insecure housing during the 2017-18 school year, according to the report.

“A homeless student or one living in a crowded environment may experience a greater tendency for stress and anxiety not knowing where they are going to sleep each night nor having a consistent, quiet, permanent place to study or do their homework,” the report states.

And the rate of OC children living in poverty went up 20 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to the report.

Out of the 34 cities in Orange County, those with the highest rates of children living in poverty were Stanton (35 percent) Santa Ana (29 percent), Buena Park (23 percent), Westminster (21 percent), Fullerton (20 percent) and Tustin (20 percent).

The report did find improvement for local children in several areas, including a near-doubling of the rate of college readiness among socio-economically disadvantaged students, and a drop in gang prosecutions of minors to about one-quarter of the prior level.

But it emphasized a need for serious improvement when it comes to children’s mental health crises, and suggested creating a comprehensive plan to address youth suicide countywide.

“Collecting the perspectives of youth and also of parents and other adults who interact with youth, is critical to developing an actionable and impactful strategic plan to address youth suicide in Orange County,” the report states.

“The Orange County Children’s Partnership recognizes it will take a communitywide response to support Orange County’s children in meaningful ways to put an end to youth suicide.”

As for what could be behind the rise in suicide attempts, the report noted researchers have found a relationship between suicide and traumatic childhood experiences, like “physical and emotional abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, such as domestic violence or divorce.”

“Creating safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments to support children and their caregivers, beginning in early childhood can help to prevent suicides,” the report added, including fostering “connectedness to school and community and the development of life skills such as coping and problem solving skills.”

Helpful efforts include “mentoring programs, parent education, investments in early childhood education or quality and affordable childcare,” the report found.

County Supervisor Andrew Do, who chairs the Orange County Children’s Partnership that organized the report, wrote an introduction to the report that does not specifically say how officials would address the mental health, housing and poverty issues the report raised.

Do instead emphasized participating in the U.S. Census that determines federal funding levels.

“The 2020 Census is vital to Orange County getting its fair share of federal funds for programs serving our seniors, veterans, college students and our children,” wrote Do.

“In fact, undercounting our residents in the Census could jeopardize $15 billion in federal funding coming to Orange County over the next 10 years.

“Our everyday life will be impacted by the results of the Census. We are at a pivotal moment, so I ask you to help ensure that no Orange County resident is left out of this process. Let’s make sure all kids count!”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.