Navigating the mental health care system can be challenging for patients, families and providers. Add to that, a COVID-19 pandemic that upended nearly all aspects of ‘normal’ life almost overnight. However, the team of clinicians who make up the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) at Children’s of Alabama continued to connect adult callers to mental health resources when they needed it the most. “The pandemic forced everyone to recognize children were in crisis before and even more so now,” said PIRC Director Cindy Jones.
PIRC is a collaboration between Children’s of Alabama and the Anne B. LaRussa Foundation for Hope. It opened in 2018 to connect adult callers to mental health resources for children and teens. Calls are answered by licensed mental health clinicians trained to assess a child or teen’s emotional and behavioral needs. PIRC is open seven days a week, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Any adult with a mental health question or concern regarding their child is encouraged to call 205-638-7472. The PIRC is only one of three of its kind in the country. The team at Children’s of Alabama has established itself as a strong group of expert clinicians. Each member of the team brings his or her own skill set, with specialties including ADHD, autism, developmental delays, sexually reactive behaviors, mood and psychotic disorders and behavioral concerns such as conduct disorders.
In its first 12 months of service, PIRC took more than 1,100 calls and had a database of more than 1,000 mental health providers representing every county in Alabama. In 2020, PIRC received more than 1,900 calls, and its database has grown to more than 1,600 providers. “When someone calls the PIRC, we are able to briefly assess the situation and point them in the right direction,” Jones said. “We’ve done a lot of research and know the mental health providers in your community. Calling us helps you save time and energy so that you may focus on providing the support your child needs.”
Warning Signs. Jones said parents should watch for these signs of mental distress occurring more than two weeks in their children: Isolating themselves, changes in eating habits, unexplained weight changes, changes in sleeping habits, mood swings, increased irritability and frustration, frequent crying spells and violent, aggressive outbursts. Once these signs are identified, call the PIRC to find the appropriate mental health treatment for your child.
As the pandemic wore on, caregivers and children alike struggled to adapt to the ‘new normal.’ The strain of uncertainty, fear, isolation, depression, anxiety and frustration associated with the pandemic took its toll and has not let up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted for 2020 that “emergency rooms have seen a 24 percent increase in mental health-related visits from children ages 5 to 11 compared to last year (2019). The increase among older kids is even higher — 31 percent.” Rates of suicidal thinking and behavior were up by 25 percent or more from similar periods in 2019, according to researchers with the American Academy of Pediatrics. At Children’s in 2020, the PIRC team was called in for more than 2,900 psychiatric consults in the emergency department, and 51 percent of those required inpatient stabilization. Clinicians emphasize the PIRC is not a suicide or crisis hotline, but instead a valuable resource for parents, physicians, school nurses, teachers, counselors, grandparents, foster parents or anyone who is seeking mental health services on a child’s behalf. PIRC does not provide over the phone diagnoses.
Anyone experiencing a crisis should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should call the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For more information, visit ChildrensAL.com/PIRC. †