SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — It’s been more than two weeks, but there’s no sign in sight of when Ellis Hospital might reopen the only nearby inpatient facility for adolescents in a mental health crisis.

“In the past couple of weeks, yes it has put a strain on everything because everything was already strained,” says Mohonasen Central School District Superintendent Shannon Shine.

“February first to April first, we had fifteen student admissions alone at Ellis. Over the last four years, we average between 60 to 70 percent of our inpatient hospitalizations being at Ellis,” explains Andrea Tote-Freeman, the Schenectady City School District Student Support Services Assistant Superintendent.

School districts in Schenectady County say drastic is not an overstatement when considering the demand for youth mental health services post-pandemic. Additional focus was placed on emotional support as schools regained in-person instruction; however, the longer the Ellis unit remains shut down, even temporarily, educators worry families may be deterred from seeking out help.

“It does turn out that the challenge is even greater than we predicted and then of course you’re seeing resource lag around the region, including at the Ellis facility,” says Shine.

“There’s a lot of concern around what this could create for barriers for our families if they don’t have transportation to be able to get to a hospital away from the city,” says Tote-Freeman.

The focus now turns to strengthen existing programs designed to catch early signs and keep kids out of acute care. Superintendent Shine says Mohonasen employs two Northern Rivers counselors on staff, one at the middle and one at the high school, plus training in Youth Mental Health First Aid. Shine says the training started in 2021 and will get additional focus during the summer vacation for teachers, students, and staff.

“Part of this training is, hey you may not be equipped to meet the needs of the child that’s presenting, so who is on the team and can you connect the student with the resources,” he explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

“Mental health is health. The more we can get students to feel that and know, hey I have an advocate and I’m safe and you’re here to support me, the much more likely they are to tell someone,” Shine continues.

Those resources include relying on community partners like Northern Rivers Mobile Crisis Team. In addition to the counselors on staff at Mohonasen, the team sends clinicians into many schools to spread the word about what services they offer.

“The increase in those who need that acute level of care backs up the system from the top down. When people need that hospital-level of care and they can’t get it, that really creates a strain on the lower levels of care where they may need additional support. We’re offering our help to providers and families to let them know we’ll do what we can to offset the loss of that service,” says Northern Rivers Crisis Services Chief Officer Matt Crave.

“Usually in those situations, someone needs a crisis plan, they need someone to talk to, and they need some safety planning in order to remain safe, and if we are able to provide that, we can keep them out of inpatient units,” he goes on to explain.

The Northern Rivers team still has a ways to go though until it can offer mobile crisis services 24/7. Crave and Executive Program Director Jennifer Eslick said they’re working on an aggressive recruitment strategy.

“Our goal is by the end of the year and beginning of the following year, as long as we can staff it, to be 24/7. The overnights would be telephonic, whereas all the other hours would be responding on the side and telephonic,” Eslick says.

Crave adds Northern Rivers recently received approval from the NYS Office of Mental Health to put together a Youth ACT program team to launch by July 1.

“As the name suggests, it’s Assertive Community Treatment. So what it will do is send treatment teams into the community in order to provide treatment to youth and their families in their homes rather than residential treatment or sending kids to hospitals when in crisis,” he says.

Schenectady City School District is also utilizing an OMH program. Tote-Freeman says they’ll soon start distributing materials promoting the state GOT5 line. Students can text “GOT5” to 741741 to connect with the anonymous texting service.

“Students can text that line if they are in need of additional support. It’s not just mental health, because they can also ask about additional things like college planning and things like that,” Tote-Freeman says. “We’ve got additional, virtual free counseling for students and families in the evenings and weekends. We will continue to do that over the summer. To really wrap around those who need that care.”

The Northern Rivers Mobile Crisis Unit can be reached at 518-292-5499. Services are available free of charge and Mon-Fri 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sat-Sun 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.