SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Ellis Medicine consistently reassures the community closing its youth mental health unit is only temporary, but community services aren’t so sure as they’re left to pick up the slack.

“Every day that the Ellis adolescent mental health unit remains closed, the hopes fade that it will ever reopen,” says Andrea Smyth, president and CEO of the NYS Coalition for Children’s Behavioral Health.

She says since the sudden shut down May 2, the week following has seen a bottle neck effect strangling services trying to take care of patients who can no longer rely on Ellis.

“The calls for outpatient services are increasing. The mobile mental health crisis services are insufficient to meet demand, and that we are starting to ask OMH [NYS Office of Mental Health] to please intervene with emergency expansion of mobile crisis services,” Smyth explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Schenectady County leaders. A representative shares a statement with NEWS10 reading:

Schenectady County Public Health Services has seen an increase in demand. They are working closely with Northern Rivers Mobile Crisis and other partners to address the need for services.

Erin Roberts, Schenectady County Director of Public Communications

“Some of my providers have even called and told me they don’t have enough staff to run their mobile crisis units through the weekend. Schools have been calling as well. It’s a concern the whole community is feeling,” Smyth adds.

A little less than 48 hours before the temporary shut down, a release from Ellis announced the unit did not have the staff necessary to safely treat the average six to seven patients the youth mental health unit serves daily. An updated public letter from Ellis Medicine President and CEO Paul Milton issued Friday says current staffing levels can only accommodate safe care for two patients.

The letter goes on to say in part:

Ellis has been aggressively recruiting to fill critical mental health positions for some time,… We are also collaborating with the state Office of Mental Health to ensure the integrity of our programs. We have a plan to quickly and steadily increase the number of patients we can safely serve.

Paul Milton, Ellis Medicine President and CEO

However, despite promises to work together, an OMH representative confirms to NEWS10 Ellis Medicine did not follow the necessary review process before going ahead with the temporary closure.

Ellis Hospital has not submitted a Prior Approval Review (PAR) application to OMH, which is legally required before the hospital could close the adolescent psychiatric unit. 

James Plastiras, NYS Office of Mental Health Director of Communications

A subsequent follow up from OMH also adds violations are usually met with fines for every day a unit stays closed without authorization. A representative says the office has already given Ellis a warning about potential financial penalties, but has not yet started charging the hospital system.

Ellis has not yet addressed the violation or potential fines.

In the meantime, Smyth suggests families contact CHAMP — the Community Health Access to Addiction and Mental Healthcare Project — to find ways to get their insurance to cover other options if the Ellis unit remains unavailable.

“Network adequacy in health insurance is a huge problem in mental health and addiction services, and so we strongly urge the state regulators to immediately act on this problem and come up with a solution so people are not left without any resources,” she says.

“OMH will be providing specialized youth-focused training to Ellis staff and we continue to work with hospital administrators, exploring options to support Ellis in their operation of the unit,” writes Plastiras in Thursday’s update.

Smyth also suggests contacting your county or a community advocate group for help making a personalized mental health plan for your family.

“Families who are on waiting lists for treatment should be reaching out to see if they can get assigned a youth peer or a family peer. Someone who has experience and has lived with this,” she explains.

The CHAMP free and confidential helpline can be reached at 1-888-614-5400.