Skip to main content

Program supports caregivers of children with mental health emergencies

Dec. 15, 2022, 9:01 AM


by Jessica Pasley

The mental health of the pediatric and adolescent population is a major public health concern.

While much of the focus of clinical research efforts has centered around how best to help the patient, a team from Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt are turning the spotlight on the parent/caregiver.

A pilot program, funded by a grant from the Klingenstein Foundation, recently launched in the emergency department (ED) at Monroe Carell with the aim of providing resources to caregivers of children with mental health emergencies via text messaging.

“What we have heard from families who have been in the emergency department for mental health emergencies is that it can be very overwhelming and scary,” said Alex Bettis, PhD, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at VUMC.

“The emergency department is not designed to provide mental health treatment — the goal is to conduct an evaluation for what the child needs next.

“If a child is released to go home, a parent may feel some relief, but they may also be unsure about what is next.”

Bettis said that is where her program comes in. Outpatient support and connection can sometimes take a while, she admits.

Her team assists families during the interim, providing support, including ways to keep their child safe at home, but the key focus is encouragement for caregivers as well as pertinent information based on their child’s needs.

“During that window between when they leave the emergency department and are connected to outpatient mental health treatment, we aim to provide much-needed resources,” Bettis said.

“One thing that has stood out in the process of developing this program is that parents are asked to do a lot to support their child’s mental health needs, but there is not a whole lot of support for the parents.”

Bettis and her team, made up of two research coordinators and collaborators at Vanderbilt, work with the clinical teams in the ED to identify families who may benefit from this kind of service.

Caregivers enrolling in the research study will receive text messages that are focused on education about mental health, strategies to manage their child’s mental health as well as strategies to manage their own emotions as caregivers. The text messages will also encourage caregivers to follow through with referrals to mental health treatment for their child.

“The text messages are geared for the caregivers primarily because they are tasked with monitoring their child and navigating this journey but are often not asked how they are coping or given the resources to do so effectively, Bettis said.

“We liken this process of support to being on an airplane when the flight attendant says to put the oxygen mask on themselves before assisting others. We want to give them the same kind of support so that they can be the best they can be for their children.”

The program hopes to enroll at least 15 parents/caregivers from different families to gather feedback for improvement of a larger version of the texting program in the next year.

To date, Bettis’ team has enrolled six parents into the program.

Recent Stories from VUMC News and Communications Publications

Vanderbilt Medicine
VUMC Voice