Children's Opens Psychiatric Telephone Response Center

Tobias Martinez, MD

Local emergency rooms are becoming front and center in what health care providers are calling a mental health crisis for children and adolescents. These patients and their parents are using local emergency departments for urgent psychiatric needs because they don't know where else to go for help.

Children's of Alabama, in conjunction with the Anne B. LaRussa Foundation of Hope, has established the Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC) to address the mental health needs of young people in the Birmingham area. Two of these centers are already located in Ohio, making Alabama's PIRC the third of its kind in the nation. It provides telephone-based mental health education and treatment options for children and teens and helps patients, families and providers better navigate the mental health care system.

"It is a tremendous opportunity for Children's to offer an innovative and much-needed mental health service to people in Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, Blount and Walker counties," says PIRC Director Cindy Jones. "PIRC mental health professionals guide patients and their families through the system and support them along the way."

The Alabama center opened in March of this year and is primarily a telephone triage service that provides callers with the appropriate mental health information and resources for their situations. Licensed mental health therapists, social workers and professional counselors from Children's answer the phones and help parents find the appropriate level of care for each patient.

"There is a nationwide trend of increasing pediatric psychiatric visits to emergency rooms. It has led to a big backlog of patients in ERs waiting to be seen. Our program's mission is to help patients and parents navigate the complicated mental health system and to guide them to the most appropriate level of care," says PIRC Medical Director Tobias Martinez, MD, a consultation liaison for psychiatric services and an assistant professor at the UAB School of Medicine.

The PIRC staff emphasizes that the service is not a suicide or crisis hotline. If a child is at risk, an adult should take him or her to the nearest emergency room or call 911. The PIRC is a valuable resource for parents, physicians, school nurses, teachers, or anyone who is seeking mental health services on a child's behalf. The partnership of Children's of Alabama and the LaRussa Foundation of Hope provides a great resource for these families. "The foundation is focused on funding initiatives that can help children and teens with mental health issues," Jones says. "Children's of Alabama works with them to provide education and resources to families and their loved ones."

The Children's of Alabama center is averaging 80 calls a month. The PIRC therapists assess risk factors, answer questions about mental health concerns and provide community resource information and safety planning for future crises. For high-risk children and teens who may need services in the emergency department, the PIRC provides crisis evaluations on a first-come, first-served basis according to treatment room availability and urgency. Patients are assessed by a mental health team of board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrists, fellows, nurse practitioners, registered nurses and PIRC staff to determine the appropriate level of care.

"We don't turn away callers or anyone who comes into the ER. Every contact is confidential and provides education and resources to the patients and families," Martinez says.

To reach the PIRC, call (205) 638-PIRC (7472). The center is open seven days a week year-round from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Licensed mental health professionals will match patients and their families with mental health services in the five-county service area. Anyone experiencing a crisis should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Anyone having suicidal thoughts should call the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Martinez emphasizes that it is important to seek care quickly for mental health issues. "There is a long waiting list to see mental health clinicians. With the education we can provide to the community, we can help families navigate the complicated mental health system," he says. "Through the PIRC, we are helping children and teens get the right level of care at the right time."


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MD, Psychiatric Intake Response Center; Anne B. LaRussa Foundation of Hope; pediatri


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