Aurora Med Center boosts teen behaviorial care

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AURORA | Yoga, music and nutrition classes make up the daily schedule at the Medical Center of Aurora’s new, 20-bed adolescent behavioral health unit.

“It’s different from the medical model where patients sit around and don’t do anything,” says Scott Adams, director of youth services for the Medical Center of Aurora. “It’s very structured, which is important for children and adolescents. We’re trying to teach the concept that it’s important to have your life organized.”

The new unit is an open, calming, mint-and-purple layout with sprawling photoscapes of the Rocky Mountains. Sleek wood floors make it feel less like a lockdown unit and more like a teen recreation center. Pop music can be heard drifting from a flat-screen TV, while a nurse’s desk is directly accessible to patients in the lobby area.   

“Most inpatient units are based on the medical model, that’s what’s been in place for decades,” says Adams. “We’re going the opposite of that. Patients will have effective and appropriate nursing care and physician coverage too, but they’ll be surrounded by clinical social workers, music therapists, recreational therapists, occupational therapists and a pet therapy program. We’re trying to treat the whole adolescent.”

Officials with the hospital’s parent company HealthONE say the facility will serve area youth ages 12 to 17 in need of specialized care. Patients in the unit will typically stay between seven and 14 days and will also have access to an outpatient program.

They also say the unit will fill a gap for adolescent-specific care in the Denver metro area, adding 20 new beds to 148 in-patient psychiatric beds within area medical facilities.

“The number of psychiatric beds for children and adolescents is woefully short, to the point where many kids will go without treatment altogether because there are no beds,” Adams says. Adams adds that many adolescents end up in emergency departments where they can stay for weeks without the appropriate care.

A 2013 study from the Office of Adolescent Health showed nationwide 30 percent of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless. That percentage was higher for females at 39 percent. That same study also found that 17 percent of high school students nationwide reported considering attempting suicide. That percentage was also higher for females at 22 percent.

A 2012 report posted by the Office of Adolescent Health found around 8 percent of Colorado youth between 12 an 17 years old reported that they had at least one major depressive episode.

Relying on evidenced-based models known as cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and the trauma-informed care model, the adolescent behavioral health unit consists of an interdisciplinary team of physicians trained to work with youth who suffer from common problems such as anxiety and depression, as well youth that inflict self-harm.

A two-year project for The Medical Center of Aurora, the adolescent behavioral health unit opened July 6 with a total cost of $5 million.

It has so far received several referrals and one patient, says Cynthia Meyer, HealthONE’s vice president of behavioral services. She says the unit is likely to fill up soon as there is also a shortage of adolescent psychiatrists in the metro area and nationwide.

“That poses a problem, too,” Meyer says. “At times, we have adult psychiatrists treating children and adolescents, and it’s a different set of issues and problems.”

Meyer says the unit is unique because it emphasizes wellness over illness and caters treatment specifically to adolescents.

“Wellness is a very different concept from illness. It is more holistic, it’s mind and body. It’s not just one or the other, and how we utilize all of our resources to get better is important for any individual,” she says.

HealthONE officials say the new unit will accept most health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid.