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Response Center in Place for Children who May Face Mental Health Issues

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Seated from left: Kaitlin McAnnally, RN; Shannon Messina, mental health therapist; Dr. Tobias Martinez, PIRC medical director; Susan Bennett-Smith, mental health therapist. Standing from left: Cindy Jones, PIRC director. Matt Foster, mental health therapist. (Provided Photo)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Seated from left: Kaitlin McAnnally, RN; Shannon Messina, mental health therapist; Dr. Tobias Martinez, PIRC medical director; Susan Bennett-Smith, mental health therapist. Standing from left: Cindy Jones, PIRC director. Matt Foster, mental health therapist. (Provided Photo)

Mental health issues in adults are often discussed, but often overlooked when it comes to children and teens.

Children’s of Alabama is finding ways to make sure families and caregivers have needed resources to address mental health issues young people may face. That’s where the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) formed by the Children’s of Alabama and the Anne B. LaRussa Foundation of Hope comes in.

Stacy White, Administrative Director of Behavior Health at Children’s of Alabama. (Provided Photo)

“It is a response center to help callers identify mental health resources and basically match the appropriate resource with what a child needs in terms of emotional, mental and behavioral health needs,” said Stacy White, Administrative Director of Behavior Health at Children’s of Alabama.

The center opened in March and allows adults to call with a question about mental health issues with a child or teen. Licensed mental health professionals match callers with services and providers in the five counties of Blount, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair and Walker.

‘Most Appropriate Care’

The PIRC, one of only three of its kind in the country, is located in Children’s Emergency Department and is open seven days a week, year-round from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“Our main goal is to try to find children the most appropriate care at the right time and really link those resources with families who are seeking mental health care,” White said. “I think across the country we’ve seen concerns and instances of mental health issues arise in children and we’ve also seen an increase of emergency department visits for children with mental health issues.”

The PIRC currently has 10 full time and part time staff members on call. The center averages about 75 calls per month.

White, along with PIRC Director Cindy Jones, spent a year and a half planning the program by researching similar programs around the country. That included visits to PIRC at the Children’s Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and at Children’s Hospital in Akron, Ohio.

“We learned about this program and thought that it would be a great benefit to our community in Birmingham and to start this program as a joint effort together (with Anne B. LaRussa Foundation of Hope),” said White.

PIRC is not to replace or become a suicide or crisis hotline but to assist families, Jones said.

“We’re providing resources and education to adult callers on behalf of the child or the teen,” she said. “We get people calling who are in crisis or their child may be suicidal and we’re certainly trained to deal with those calls. But if they’re high-risk, we direct them to the nearest emergency room or call 911.”

PIRC has a database of more than 500 mental health providers across the five-county area.

“We have providers that are psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, social workers and we also have information for parenting groups and support groups . . . what we try to do is identify what their concern is and match them with the right resource based on the information the caller provides to us,” said Jones.

Cindy Jones, director, Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC). (Provided Photo)

It’s important to note that PIRC is not a walk-in clinic nor does its staff give diagnoses, psychiatric evaluations, prescribe medication, home visits or schedule outpatient appointments over-the-phone.

Back To School

With school starting soon, getting the word out is important.

Last week, Birmingham Board of Education member Mary Boehm said during a forum that mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing school systems.

“When I called my colleagues at mental health, I was told that funds have been cut so drastically that we are barely able to serve adults, let alone children,” Boehm said. “And we’re not prepared to handle that.”

White and Jones want teachers and parents to be aware of PIRC as a resource.

During school, children can be more prone to stress and mental health issues which causes more emergency room visits.

“The volume sort of fluctuates and is reflective of the time that kids are in school but we want parents and teachers to be able to call us for those situations and we can help them and match them with the right resources,” Jones said.

The phone calls can range from people who want a number to a psychiatrist to someone in the midst of a crisis.

The hope is for someone in need to call PIRC before making a trip to the emergency room “because in some cases they don’t need inpatient services, but outpatient services,” Jones said, “since we have that database, we can actually talk to them by phone and assess that situation.

White said the impact is noticeable.

“We’ve been able to recommend certain providers or support groups and . . . resources for a family or child that is seeking help,” said White. “The mental health system is really hard to navigate and it’s hard for people to understand what’s the difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist or a counselor. PIRC has professionals that can assess the situation and make a recommendation so that that child can get the help that they need.”

Anyone with a mental health question regarding a child or teen is encouraged to call the PIRC at 205-638-PIRC (7472).  Anyone experiencing a crisis should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts they should call the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).