Yale Daily News

Connecticut’s emergency rooms have been overwhelmed with pediatric mental health crises.

A mental health education initiative pitched to U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) by Connecticut Children’s, one of the state’s largest pediatric care providers, might help fight the surge. 

Last Monday, Murphy and doctors from Connecticut Children’s came together in Hartford to celebrate the Oct. 5 launch of a $60 million federal grant that stemmed from an idea initially pitched by Connecticut Children’s. The grant will provide medical schools and training programs with funding to better educate their students on how to provide mental health care. 

The funding was part of the larger Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that Murphy shepherded through the Senate earlier this year following the school shooting in Uvalde, TX. The bill included provisions for specific gun control measures as well as an increase in spending on mental health care in the United States. 

“We don’t talk about mental health like this and we don’t have passage of bills like this,” Connecticut Children’s chief of pediatric psychology Melissa Santos told the News. “So we’re excited to apply for funding and keep this conversation going. We want to work and take this opportunity and build on it to make it something more sustainable.”

Murphy visited the hospital in January to consider legislative options to expand upon the 2016 Mental Health Reform Act that he sponsored and helped sign into law. The act modernized the grant application process, consolidated federal mental health and substance abuse grants and expanded funding for them. However, the pandemic has exacerbated the nation’s mental health crisis.

“Pediatricians are witnessing the escalating mental health crisis facing young people in our clinics, practices and hospitals across the country,” American Academy of Pediatrics president Moira Szilagyi wrote to the News. “Tackling this crisis, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, will require comprehensive action to ensure all children can access mental health services where they are, including schools and their pediatrician’s office.” 

Providers at the meeting told Murphy that their emergency rooms were being overwhelmed with pediatric mental health crises. This issue is not unique to Connecitut Children’s; in 2021, the US Surgeon General issued a nationwide special advisory about providing adequate mental health care to children. 

Doctors at the meeting also told Murphy about the mental health education gaps in current medical school and residency programs. Specifically, doctors advocated for better mental health education for pediatricians. Santos said that almost every child in the U.S. has a pediatrician, but very few pediatricians have adequate training to identify mental health issues and provide proper care. 

Santos told the News that much of the information they provided to Murphy came from conversations amongst pediatricians at Connecticut Children’s who shared the mental health education gaps in their own training. 

After the meeting, Murphy “could not stop thinking about” the information he had heard, he wrote on Twitter. The senator directed his staff to create a policy solution to address the education gap. 

When the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act began to take shape, Murphy was able to include a $60 million grant that medical school and training programs can apply for in order to provide improved mental health care education to their students. 

“The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act provides $60 million to train primary care residents in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health and behavioral health conditions,” Murphy told the News. “When parents notice their child is struggling with mental health, the first place many of them turn to is their pediatrician.” 

According to Santos, Connecticut Children’s hopes to utilize the grant — which they are in the process of applying for — to strengthen their mental health curriculum for medical students and residents. Connecticut Children’s is the teaching affiliate for the University of Connecticut’s Medical School as well as Quinnipiac University’s medical school. 

“Our providers aren’t sure about the right way to ask about suicide or the risk of suicide,” Santos told the News. “So really one of our goals if we win this grant is developing a curriculum that helps us teach students how to get comfortable with the language and assessment so that when a kid does come to them they can provide help instead of referring to someone else.” 

Connecticut Children’s Hartford Hospital is located at 282 Washington St.

Yash Roy covered City Hall and State Politics for the News. He also served as a Production & Design editor, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chair for the News. Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, he is a '25 in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs.