RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Robin Church looks back at photos of her son Aaron and remembers the tough questions her family had to navigate starting when he was just six-months-old.
“What child wants to be angry like this? What child wants to hurt someone else?” Church asks.
Aaron had developmental delays with aggression, and Church says it took 30 specialists over several years to make the diagnosis: Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Anxiety, Depression and Emotional Disability.
“Nothing is fixable, but it is manageable,” Church explains.
One in five children, like Aaron, has a diagnosable mental illness, according to numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2013.
However, stigmas and accessibility keep 75% of them from getting the help they need.
The new Virginia Treatment Center for Children aims to offer support to young patients and their families in Richmond. It opened in late April.
Located at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, Brook Road Campus, the center increases the number of adolescent psychiatric beds in the area from 24 to 32.
Outpatient visits will also triple over the next year, from 7,000 to 21,000.
“It really is impacting almost every family,” says Dr. Sandy Lewis, the center’s executive director. “We really need to embrace it because these are all our children.”
Lewis calls children’s mental health a ‘community issue,’ adding that studies show these young patients have lower graduation rates, are more at risk for suicide and substance abuse.
As adults, Lewis explains they may not be able to hold jobs without proper care early on.
“It’s overwhelming,” Church says about getting that diagnosis and looking towards the future.
Church knows the resources available at the center are crucial for children, their parents and siblings.
“It’s scary, and it’s a dark place for a lot of families,” she says.
Church now uses her experiences to help others as a Family Navigator at the center.
Offering that kind of guidance is a main goal.
Lewis says addressing the statewide shortage of adolescent psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers is too.
“It’s not unusual for families to be told that they have to wait several weeks to see a doctor or several months to see a doctor,” Lewis describes.
As part of the new center, VCU is training more specialists to meet the need for care.