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Doctors say more help needed when treating kids with mental illnesses

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HARTFORD, CT (WFSB) -

After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a frank discussion was started across the country about better helping those people who battle a mental illness.

Connecticut doctors have told Eyewitness News that the help for those suffering needs to start as soon as possible and more children have no place to receive that assistance.

Conor Klonoski, 15, suffers from autism, and recently he has started hurting himself as well as others. 

"It didn't matter, if he was upset or if he was happy, he was just hitting himself," said mother Angela Klonoski. "He had a lot of aggression. He was going after me and other family members. It was getting scary."

Angela Klonoski told Eyewitness News that she turned to Conor's pediatrician, who she trusted and knew for years. However, he told her that the only option was to put the teenager in an institution. 

"I just could not believe it was almost like this doctor was giving up and what he said in his defense was we only have so many resources," Angela Klonoski said.

After one particularly bad episode, Angela Klonoski took her son to the emergency room at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, where doctors there said the number of children with psychiatric problems has been rising by 5 to 10 percent every year.

"We describe it as a crisis," said Dr. Steven Rogers, who is a physician in the Emergency Department at Connecticut Children's Medical Center.

Rogers told Eyewitness News that his department is designed to care for up to four "psychiatric or behavior health patients."

"And at times, we're taking care of up to 15, 16 or 17 patients," he said.

Those patients cannot be admitted to the main floor since CCMC is not licensed to provide psychiatric care. The patients have to be admitted to a psychiatric facility or sent home. 

"They may, for example, need an inpatient bed," said Dr. Paul Dworkin, who is the chief physician at CCMC. "But that's typically an adventure and a journey to find that bed for a suitable, appropriate placement, rather than have a child sitting here for six hours, eight hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, days, literally to weeks."

Dworkin told Eyewitness News that he is frustrated with seeing his ER filled with patients that he cannot help.

"Throughout the system, wherever one looks, there are gaps and there are capacity issues," he said.

Dworkin told Eyewitness News that the focus needs to be on children, mainly prevention and early intervention.

He added that steps have been taken in the right direction such as the Cares Unit at the Institute of Living campus, which focuses on kids and teenagers. But he said programs such as that one are just a start of something that needs to be much bigger and better.

"Thank goodness for CARES. I can't imagine how challenging this would be without CARES," Dworkin said. "But it is insufficient to stem the tide of what we are seeing in and by itself."

He would like to see lawmakers make the following changes: 

  • Implementing a process to give quicker access to open psychiatric beds in the state.
  • Make it easier for hospitals to collaborate when an emergency room hits capacity.

Dworkin said he personally believes that "two priorities that would make an immediate difference" and "not have any cost implications."

"I do think there is a solution, but I think it requires not just the medical staff, but the insurance companies to work together," said Angela Klonoski. "And you really need to bring parents and families to the table."

Angela Klonoski, who is a mother of four, said her son is now working with a neurologist from Boston. Connor is also on eight different medications to calm him down and prevent seizures.

"As long as I'm on this earth, I want him to be with me and be in our home," she said.

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