A provider walking past the UNM Children's Psychiatric Center
By Elizabeth Dwyer Sandlin

A Critical Need, a Special Ask

Higher Education GO Bond 3 Would Rebuild UNM Children’s Psychiatric Center

As our communities emerge from years of uncertainty and reconnect with the unique familiarities of a New Mexico autumn – balloons dotting the sky, the scent of chile roasting in the air – we also face a new, unchartered era of healing.

Among the challenges we face are increasing numbers of young people experiencing mental health issues. This fall, New Mexico voters have the opportunity to improve the lives of children throughout the state in need of mental and behavioral health care services.

If voters approve General Obligation Bond 3, it will provide $89.2 million for The University of New Mexico (UNM) and its branch campuses, including $36 million for a new Children’s Psychiatric Center (CPC). The current facility is nearly 60 years old, and providers are struggling to meet the needs of patients and their families.

“A new facility will enable us to better serve kids who are in acute crises and may need more diverse environmental options,” says Kristina Sowar, MD, the CPC’s attending child and adolescent psychiatrist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the UNM School of Medicine. “The current structure limits the type of care we can provide and how many kids we can admit, because sometimes kids need more privacy and seclusion.”

Rodney McNease, UNM’s Behavioral Health Services administrator, agrees that we can and must do better.

“We have a whole lot of . . . social and environmental challenges in New Mexico,” McNease says. “These are our social determinants of health, and the CPC essentially functions as the children's hospital for the entire state. These aren’t just kids from Albuquerque, they’re from all over. It takes a lot of support to care for our kids who need behavioral health services.”

According to Sowar and McNease, the current facilities are not up to the task.

“It’s not uncommon at CPC, because it’s almost 60 years old, that we run into issues with appropriate heating or cooling in the units, or leaks, leaving our patients without some basic comforts,” he says. When the original facilities were built, the model of care was significantly different. The cottages were designed to be home-like spaces that housed children for stays of sometimes up to a year. Nowadays, the average stay for a patient is 10-11 days.

Not only would a centralized facility make providing services easier for caregivers, it would also create space for the children who are most at risk and in need of specialized care.

“For kids who are in a place where they’re more aggressive or agitated – kids who might be on the autism spectrum or with neurodevelopmental disorders, for example – we need a facility that’s more updated, especially in terms of safety components and innovations with environmental spaces,” Sowar says.

Plans for a new center have been in the works for a long time, but have not come to fruition sooner largely due to a lack of funding.

“Our kids and their families are making do,” McNease says. “The cottages are small, there’s little to no common space. The new and improved facilities consider everyone in the equation: the kids, their families and the providers who care for them.”

Current inefficiencies make things difficult for providers and staff. Everyone is struggling to work and stay organized without the programs and accommodations that serve the patient population, and new facilities are needed to support the evolution of patient care.

For example, while the CPC’s technical census capacity is 35 patients, actual accommodations hover around 25. This is a result of closing off certain beds and areas in order to provide for acute-care patients.

The UNM Children’s Psychiatric Center is the state’s only children’s emergency psychiatric unit, and the only inpatient, residential and partial hospitalization program that accepts patients regardless of a family’s ability to pay. At any given time, 50% of the CPC’s patients are from outside the Albuquerque area.

CPC’s services are essential for supporting New Mexican children in need of mental and behavioral health care, and 100% of the funding provided by GO Bond 3 will be used for new buildings, equipment, technology and upgrades to clinical settings or areas specifically designated for patients. No part of the funds will go toward administrative offices, conference rooms, etc. The new center has a proposed patient capacity of 52 beds and includes a Behavioral Intensive Care Unit.

Funding provided by GO Bond 3 is a direct investment in the services and structures that will improve the well-being of New Mexican children, especially those who are vulnerable to depression, anxiety and self-harm.

“Unfortunately, the need for these services has increased over time, for a whole litany of reasons,” McNease says. “We are where we are, and this new facility will help us provide much better care for our kids. Better experiences for the patients and better health care outcomes for our communities.”


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