Caught in WA’s youth mental health ‘disaster,’ a teen with nowhere to go

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

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Down the hall from where a tiny toddler is playing, past a colorful mural and a nursing station, 17-year-old Jack Hays lies alone in his hospital bed. 

His head is shaved; he recently contracted lice. It’s May, and in the six months since he’s arrived at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, he’s gained almost 30 pounds. His room is empty but for a pair of socks discarded on the floor and two cat posters taped to the wall. A staff member is stationed outside his door around the clock, ready to step in when Jack hurts himself — or to call security when he becomes aggressive.

Jack doesn’t talk. But his mother, Greta Johnson, has an intuitive ability to understand what Jack needs. Sometimes they use sign language, but Greta often picks up on a slight movement or facial expression signaling Jack’s feelings.

On this day, his despair is palpable.

Watch: When home is the hospital

Jack’s situation is extreme but increasingly common. He’s one of a surging number of Washington children facing mental health challenges so severe that they require hospital stays. Between 2015 and 2021, the total number of hospitalizations nearly doubled among youth whose primary diagnosis is psychiatric, an investigation by The Seattle Times found. Charges to government insurance for youth psychiatric stays did double, rising to more than $151 million last year.

The Times has spent the past year examining the toll of the youth mental health crisis at Washington state hospitals, interviewing families and medical staff, reviewing state budgeting documents and combing through tens of thousands of records that track youth psychiatric hospitalizations. This data analysis represents the first detailed accounting of the full costs of these kinds of hospitalizations in Washington during the pandemic: the physical and mental costs to the children who are stuck inside hospital rooms, and the financial costs to their families, hospitals and taxpayers.

Housed at the Hospital

In an occasional series, The Seattle Times Mental Health Project is investigating why children are waiting days or weeks for vital psychiatric care.

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State officials have blamed pandemic-era school closures, social isolation and lack of access to mental health services.

But the inpatient data confirms what physicians have reported and national research supports. The youth mental health crisis in Washington crescendoed after COVID-19 arrived — but it didn’t appear overnight. 

Elected leaders responsible for funding children’s mental health services didn’t prioritize these programs even as youth psychiatric hospitalizations were rising many years before the pandemic, a Seattle

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