If you’ve been a parent for very long, it’s highly likely you’ve taken your child to the hospital for some type of emergency situation. Toddlers and kids fall and need stitches or a cast on a broken bone. Sicknesses come on swiftly. These times are serious, and we are thankful for the great medical care we have access to in our country.

But what about when your child needs to go to the hospital or emergency room for mental health care? What’s it like?What's It Like When Your Child Goes to the Hospital for Mental Health Care?|The Holy Mess

I was a parent for many years before I entered into these situations, and the realities were shocking to me. I wish I had been better prepared. In the middle of what is already a crisis situation, it didn’t help to have more stress because I was not ready for what was in front of me.

I’m writing this to inform you, in case you or someone you know might come to this situation in the future, and I encourage you to keep this as a resource and share it with parents who need it.

Please note: This blog is not a substitute for medical advice. Your situation might be different, so speak with your doctor to determine the best course of action for you and your child.

This article is about when you take your child for urgent emergency care, like to the ER or a crisis center. The next article speaks to what it’s like when your child receives care inpatient.

Yesterday as part of the Still Standing series (to read the series from the beginning or see all the posts, go here), I shared that our son was taken to the emergency room by ambulance for a mental health evaluation. Since that time, we have been to a number of walk in crisis centers, Emergency Rooms, and other situations for emergency mental health care with our children.

What Brings You Here

The main reasons to bring your child to the emergency room or crisis center are if you feel your child is an imminent danger to himself or others.

If your teen threatens suicide, this is cause to take him to the emergency room. Always take your child or teen seriously if he or she talks about suicide, harming himself, or harming someone else. It’s always best to err on the side of caution. The staff is trained to help you sort through what to do next, so don’t fear that you are overreacting.

Dangerous behavior that could hurt others, behavior that could seriously threaten himself (such as running into the street of oncoming traffic), and out-of-control eating disorders are also reasons to take a child to the emergency room.

Self-harming behaviors, such as cutting, is a very serious behavior but probably will only require emergency care if the cuts are very deep. However, it needs help from a qualified therapist as soon as possible.

A child who is in a manic state of bi-polar, experiencing paranoia, or psychotic are other reasons to go to the emergency room.

Ultimately you are the parent so trust your instincts. If you think you need to go, then go. No one is going to judge you for going to get help and if they do, that’s their problem.

We have taken several of our children and foster children to the ER, and each time I worried that we were opening a door that couldn’t be closed again. It’s like taking this giant step into a huge void and feels so out of control. While it’s impossible to predict, generally I want to assure you and encourage you to put this fear to rest.

Most of the time, a lot LESS happened that I thought should happen, not more than I wanted to happen.

So while I would get frustrated when sometimes we were sent home with a child that I thought should be given more care than we received, I want to encourage you that almost never is anyone going to unnecessarily lock up your child and take her away from you.

What Happens When You Get There

I was shocked when we took one of our children to the ER for suicidal thoughts and what happened next.

We went to our beautiful new metro-area Children’s hospital (a place we had been to many times with sick kids), and instead of the pretty rooms with the fish on the walls and toys and books, we were ushered into a separate section of the emergency room designated specifically for mental health conditions.

I didn’t know such a section even existed before that day.

This section looked and felt totally different, and the rules were different. Our child was told to take off all clothing and jewelry and put on a gown. Any personal items were locked in a locker. The rooms were watched by attendants 24/7 and had cameras. There was nothing in the room except for a couple chairs that were attached to the floor.

Children who were old enough take a urine test for drugs and girls take a pregnancy test.

How to explain this? Psychiatric facilities or sections of hospitals, with very few exceptions, tend to be more run down. Due to funding reasons or how the kids destroy the facility because of their behaviors, these are not the nicer facilities or the fancier parts of the hospital.

The rooms are bare. Some of the patients can’t handle anything in the room. They get overstimulated or during a rage would use objects to hurt themselves or someone else.

If this has not been part of your life experience before, going to this type of medical care is painful. It makes you feel like you are less than good enough or like there really is something deeply wrong with you.

It’s unfortunate that it has to be this way (surely there is a better way, but I don’t know how to go about fixing the system), but this is the reality.

I’m not saying it’s right — I’m just telling it like it is so you will be prepared.

What Happens Next: Evaluation

This is a parent perspective, not medical or legal advice.

Treatment will vary depending on the state where you live and the facility where you go. Most likely, you will spend a lot of time sitting and waiting.

The nurse took an extensive history, interviewed us as parent with our child together, us without the child present, and the child without the parents present. The goal is to get an accurate picture of the situation so the doctor can assess what needs to happen next.

A psychiatrist spoke with our child, reviewed the information, and made a determination if our child could go home with a safety plan or needed to be admitted for further evaluation or treatment.

In some states, you will hear the term “72 hour hold” used, which means during this 72 hour time, the child must be held (for his or her safety) and a full evaluation must be done to determine a proper treatment plan. This can be done on a voluntary or involuntary basis if the child is considered a danger to himself or others, but laws vary by state.

How to Handle Your Emotions As the Parent

If you are reading this because you are contemplating taking your child to the ER for mental health treatment, you have taken them, or fear you will need to in the future, you have my heart and full support, because I have been there and understand what it’s like.

We have taken a couple of our children to the ER and crisis walk-in clinics for mental health treatment, and those were some of our darkest days.

You fear what will happen next.

You feel like like a horrible parent.

You are sure people are judging you. (Mostly they aren’t, but sometimes they are.)

This is a tough situation to be in, but ultimately just like you have done all of your child’s life, you are doing what is best for your child and your family.

Rest in knowing you are doing the right thing even if it’s the hardest thing.

Other helpful blog posts:

For When You are Facing a Terrible Decision

For Parents Who Have Had a Near Miss

What To Do When People Judge You

Still Standing

Bible Verse

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12

Journal Prompt

Think of a time when you stood firm during a crisis situation. God says you are “blessed” if you remain steadfast under trial. How does that help you in the struggles you face today?What It's Like When Your Child Goes to the Hospital for Mental Health Care|The Holy Mess


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