In the fall of 2008, Alex Slusher tried to get her teenage son, Stuart, an appointment to see a Richmond therapist but was told there were no slots available, not even two months out.
"Is it an emergency?" the therapist asked her.
"Well, I don't know," Slusher responded. "In my head I was thinking ‘Yes,' but he was my child." She explains, "I told the therapist Stuart had specifically requested him [after hearing the therapist give a speech], but I did not know what he wanted to talk about."
Six months later, without having seen the therapist, 17-year-old Stuart took his life. It was a Sunday afternoon — Mother's Day 2009. Looking into the distance, Slusher says she knew her son was struggling, working through a relationship breakup as well as some family issues, but she thought they seemed like "normal life things" for his age. Stuart, who was a co-captain of the baseball team at Douglas S. Freeman High School, also had decided to quit the team that year. But it was difficult to identify the red flags, his mom says. The quiet but funny 5-foot-10 junior was known by his peers as someone who would listen to other people's problems, yet never speak of his own — a kid who was "everybody's friend."
"I have to believe that … if Stuart had been able to see the therapist, that the chances he would be here today are pretty good," Slusher says. "I wish I had asked for somebody else."
The Slushers' difficulty in obtaining help is not unusual. A child or adolescent who wants to see a mental health professional in the Richmond region likely will have to wait at least two months for an appointment — and maybe even four, says Dr. Robert Cohen, director of VCU's Treatment Center for Children.
"We do not have enough providers or enough services in the community, so it is not at all uncommon for a child to have to wait a very long time to have access to a professional to get help," says Margaret Nimmo Crowe, the senior policy analyst for the nonprofit group, Voices for Virginia's Children. "It always leads to the child's condition deteriorating." Nationally, one in five children — from birth to age 18 — experiences a mental health problem, Crowe says, adding that only a fourth of those children receive appropriate health care.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Since Stuart's death, Slusher, who is also a portrait artist and former president of the Freeman PTSA, has spoken about her experiences to students, school counselors and parents. She adds that she's amazed by the number of children who have told her that they've contemplated suicide. "What I discovered in my journey for answers is that there is no central place to go to get resources," she says.
Cohen agrees. "The child mental health system is complex, fragmented and convoluted and basically not user-friendly," he says.
But Cohen is working in cooperation with more than 15 other Richmond-based organizations on a plan to respond to the need for more and better-coordinated services. The idea is to establish a Child Mental Health Resource Center that would serve as what he calls "a GPS system," providing a one-stop place to go for help. At the center, patients would be assessed by a mental health clinician, then referred to an appropriate medical professional. The plan calls for a group of local practices to partner with the resource center by leaving several open appointment slots each week to be used by these patients.
"The hope is that … within a week [patients] would be able to see an appropriate professional," Cohen says. He adds that the goal is to provide low-cost care from both the resource center and the medical professionals. Organizers hope the center will open in the fall, but there is still much to be done, including finding a location and sufficient funding — about $50,000 for the rest of 2010.
Dr. Charles Hall, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Tucker Psychiatric Clinic, says he believes the resource center would provide a needed network for patients as well as health-care providers trying to establish practices.
Meanwhile, Slusher encourages parents to not be afraid to seek help. "I was embarrassed to say we were having [problems at home]," she says. "A little embarrassment versus your child's life, that is not much of a trade-off."