“I didn't really want to die, but I felt like it was the only choice I had”

“I feel like after I share my story, people are definitely more open to talking about mental health ... people are now starting to speak up more, so the stigma is breaking a little bit,” Isabelle says.“A student named Isabelle [last name withheld] is planning on ending her life today after school.”

This is the text that Isabelle, now 16, sent to her school’s hotline in January 2022.

“I was just really down. I was hurting. I didn't want to be alive anymore. And I just felt like people didn't want me around and I just wanted that to all end,” says Isabelle, a student at Port Huron Northern High School. “I didn't really want to die, but I felt like it was the only choice I had; so I reached out because I thought maybe somebody could help me.”

Someone did help. She quickly received a text message back that the situation was being handled, and within minutes the school counselor pulled her from class. Sarah, Isabelle’s mom, is a teacher at a local elementary school and was also pulled from her classroom where she learned from Isabelle’s school counselor what was going on.

“She had times where maybe there was a bad day here and there,” Sarah says. “I kind of thought, ‘She's a teenager. These things happen.’ I had no clue that it was to the extent of what it was.”

Sarah rushed to Isabelle’s school and arrived just before the St. Clair County Community Mental Health (SCCCMH) Mobile Crisis Unit, which had been contacted by the school counselor to evaluate whether Isabelle needed to go to the hospital.

“We do a lethality assessment and determine if the student is able to remain in the community and remain safe or if the student needs to go to a local emergency department and needs inpatient treatment,” says Jerrod Burgess, Mobile Crisis Unit Clinician, LLMSW.

While some may think that cases such as Isabelle’s are rare, the reality is that the number of adolescents experiencing a mental health crisis is rising – even among young children. Burgess says he’s worked with children in elementary schools as young as 5 or 6 years old.

“We're getting anywhere from 10-20 referrals a week for kids in St. Clair County,” says Debra Johnson, CEO of SCCCMH. “We know that children's mental health, overall, is getting worse. There are more issues impacting children and their mental health today than ever before; and the state of services for children’s mental health is not sufficient at all right now.”

One challenge organizations such as SCCCMH face when addressing the children’s mental health crisis is the lack of inpatient care facilities for children in the state. Heidi Fogarty, Assistant Division Director, Child & Family Services at SCCCMH, explains that in Michigan, Hawthorn Center in Northville Township was the only state hospital that would accept adolescents needing inpatient psychiatric care. The facility had the capacity to serve 45 children; however, due to the state investing $325 million into its redevelopment, those beds have been moved to Walter P. Reuther Psychiatric Hospital in Westland where there are 28 beds. Fogarty anticipates it will be several years before construction at Hawthorn Center is completed.

“So, those 28 beds are for the entire state of Michigan,” Fogarty says. “That is the only hospital that any of us have access to for kids that require longer-term hospitalization.”

In Isabelle’s case, the Mobile Crisis Unit determined she needed to go to the emergency department. However, Isabelle’s mom was heartbroken to learn that her daughter may not receive the help she needed since there are so few beds available in the state for psychiatric inpatient care.

“It was devastating to hear because she reached out for help and then to find out that the help she needs might not be readily available was heart-wrenching to me as a mom,” Sarah says.

After spending nine hours in the emergency department, Isabelle and her mom received news – a bed was available for Isabelle.

We were told that we were very lucky,” Sarah says.

Fogarty says many adolescents wait days or even weeks in the emergency department while they are experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Because the need is so high, a lot of these facilities either don't have a bed or they'll choose not to take kids because their acuity is too high,” she explains. “We have kids that end up sitting in emergency departments sometimes for several days, sometimes for several weeks. We've had some kids in emergency departments for over a month. And we continue to reassess to determine whether or not they need to stay there. Ultimately, a lot of times what happens because we can't get psychiatric facilities to take these kids, is that we just do safety planning with the family and send them back home.”

While those kids are sitting in the emergency department, Fogarty says they aren’t truly receiving the treatment they need because an emergency department isn’t an inpatient psychiatric care facility. SCCCMH can go in and talk with the child or meet with the family, but that’s not the same type of treatment that the child would receive if they were in an inpatient facility.

Johnson says that even though one in five kids will experience a mental health episode in any given year, less than half of those kids will receive the appropriate treatment.

However, SCCCMH continues to strive to make treatment accessible for youth – and adults – no matter where they are on their mental health journey. In addition to the wide variety of outpatient services SCCCMH offers such as traditional therapy and group sessions, recently, the organization has worked to bring an online therapy platform to the community - TalkSpace. The City of Port Huron provided funding to help offer this service to Port Huron residents, and because SCCCMH is a countywide organization, Johnson says they contributed additional funding to offer the resource countywide.

“You only have to be 14 years old to access it,” Johnson says. “There are two components. There's an app that you download on your phone, and it gives self-guided meditation and webinars. It teaches you about mental health. The other part is you can see a therapist virtually one time a month for three months for free, and have unlimited chat back and forth with that therapist.”

SCCCMH Mobile Crisis Unit is also making treatment accessible by providing 24/7, 365 days per year crisis intervention – whether that’s over-the-phone intervention, face-to-face intervention, or providing information about resources available in the area for someone in crisis.

“We get people who are in absolute crisis in the worst ways possible,” Burgess says. “We get people who don't know where to turn; and they have a loved one or their child or themselves, and they desperately need services so we are able to provide that link. We're just there for any situation. All our calls are considered crisis.”

Isabelle (left) and her mother Sarah.
Now, a year and a half after receiving help from the Mobile Crisis Unit during her own crisis, Isabelle has a support team at SCCCMH that helps her stay on top of her mental health. One of the ways they help her is through ongoing therapy. Sometimes she goes to therapy twice per week, sometimes just once – it all depends on what she needs.

“They're very much in tune with what is needed and are there when you need them,” Sarah says. “For example, the therapists can come right to the school if you have a big test or you're really worried about something. They'll come sit down with you right at the school to talk you through it and help you out. So, it's been amazing.”

Isabelle also has a group of peers at school who check in with each other; and, slowly, the stigma associated with mental health is breaking down.

“I feel like after I share my story, people are definitely more open to talking about mental health. I think, at first, they're scared that somebody's going to judge them but then once they know that I've been through something they're more open to talking about it,” she says. “I feel like people are now starting to speak up more, so the stigma is breaking a little bit.”

Sarah’s advice to parents of children who experience a mental health crisis is simple.

“Get them the help they need,” she says. “I can't stress it enough - just like walk through the journey with them.”

She says getting Isabelle the help she needed was transformational.

“The change in her from a year and a half ago till now is tremendous," Sarah says. "I see a smile, a genuine smile on her face again. I see her having fun with friends again. These are things that I didn't notice were missing from her life until all of it happened. It’s amazing to see the transformation after getting this help.”
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Read more articles by Gabrielle Haiderer.

Gabrielle "Gabe" Haiderer is passionate about sharing stories that show the positive interactions between individuals and businesses that occur every day in our communities - interactions that inspire hope and motivate community growth. She has used this passion to share stories through a variety of media outlets - from television to radio to traditional newspaper to digital news. When she's not writing, Gabe stays busy running her own videography and social media management business in Northern Michigan, caring for her two furkids (Watson the siamese cat and Holmes the Corgi), spending time with her husband, and tending her garden.