Nov 7, 2023 - News

UNC Health and North Carolina partner on new youth mental health crisis facility

Illustrated collage of people with their heads in their hands, anonymous faces and brain scans.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

UNC Health is opening a new behavioral health facility for children today as part of an effort to address a crisis in youth mental health in the state.

Why it matters: Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a surge in teenagers seeking emergency psychiatric care, and North Carolina's existing infrastructure is unable to meet that demand.

  • It's caused many children to be admitted to emergency rooms because there aren't enough beds in existing hospitals for them, Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, the chair of UNC's Department of Psychiatry, told Axios.

Details: The new facility, located around 30 miles north of Raleigh in Butner, will add 54 new beds for children and teens experiencing psychiatric crises. That's large enough to treat around 800 children and teens a year.

  • UNC is partnering with the state's Department of Health and Human Services on the project to convert the R.J. Blackley Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Butner — which closed in March — into the new facility.
  • The partnership and the existing infrastructure allowed the state to open the new facility around a year after it was proposed, Meltzer-Brody said.
  • The building is still owned by the state, and UNC Health spent $11 million updating it. It will employ around 200 health care professionals.

The big picture: Metlzer-Brody said while the pandemic exacerbated youth mental health issues, there's been a steady increase in reported mental health crises among teens and children for years.

  • The rate of teen suicides in the state has doubled in the past decade, for instance.
  • Meltzer-Brody said the Butner facility is a great start to addressing the issue, but she believes more facilities — like a planned, $2 billion children's hospital — will also be needed.

What they're saying: "I think this is going to be a longer-term problem" for society, Meltzer-Brody said.

  • "Whenever you have a society-wide trauma that doesn't necessarily go away [like the pandemic], people will react to that in different ways," she said.
  • "But I think that we have a number of challenges in the world that are impacting our teens — not the least of which is how we interact with the internet and social media and … the influence of that on mental health," she said.

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