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As kids sleep in ED hallways and on floors, North Carolina General Assembly 'not doing enough' to address strained mental health system

Rep. Carla Cunningham said fellow lawmakers will not treat this crisis as a priority until the public starts "pounding on that door." Enter a Charlotte mother.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just weeks after WCNC Charlotte uncovered that distressed children were sleeping on floors and in hallways inside an overcrowded mental health emergency department, more families are raising concerns about a problem that spans other hospitals throughout the area and state.

'I hope somebody starts pounding on that door '

Even with millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief headed to North Carolina, Rep. Carla Cunningham (D), NC-District 106, a registered nurse, said the only way elected leaders will make this mental health crisis a priority is if they hear from outraged voters.

"I hope somebody starts pounding on that door," Rep. Cunningham said.

A Charlotte mother is the latest to share her heartache and anger. Her pre-teen is battling suicidal thoughts. Due to the sensitive nature of her daughter's mental health, WCNC Charlotte chose to hide the girl and her mom's identities. The concerned mother said long before COVID-19 shut down schools and isolated children, her daughter battled despair.

"It feels like I'm one step away from losing my first-born child," the mother said. "I feel so sad that at 12-years-old she feels that it would be better to not be alive."

She said one overcrowded hospital turned her daughter away and two others forced her to sleep on the floor and in a hallway chair, most recently at Behavioral Health Charlotte.

"It was so overcrowded that she had to share a room with three other girls," she said. "She was forced to sleep on the floor. She was also forced to sleep in a chair."

'This system has been created over decades'

Medical records show Behavioral Health Charlotte treated the girl for suicidal ideation multiple times over the last year.

Emergency departments like Behavioral Health Charlotte have become the safety net for patients with mental illness and substance abuse disorders; a holding area for children waiting on beds elsewhere. A teen patient told WCNC Charlotte he slept in a chair in a hallway during his stay at Behavioral Health Charlotte in April and witnessed others sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

RELATED: 'Overcrowding can be a problem' at mental health facilities, Charlotte clinic discloses

A Fort Mill father expressed similar outrage at the length of time his son spent in the hallway without a bed at Behavioral Health Charlotte in July.

Citing a spike in emergency department behavioral health discharges for kids, the North Carolina Healthcare Association and 11 other organizations recently called upon the governor and state leaders to do something about the "full-blown state of emergency."

"It's not like there is one person or entity to blame," NCHA Senior Policy Development Director Nicholle Karim said. "This system has been created over decades."

'We haven't been able to move the dial'

Rep. Cunningham, a member of the Appropriations, Heath and Human Services Committee, told WCNC Charlotte the North Carolina General Assembly isn't doing enough to try and solve the problem.

"It's tragic and we must find some alternative ways to address it," she said. "There are children in Stanly County that are waiting. There are children in Montgomery County that are waiting to get proper placement."

Rep. Cunningham said North Carolina's mental health system was already strained before the pandemic and the last year has only made the problem worse.

According to the state lawmaker, until elected leaders are willing to dedicate recurring state money to alleviate overcrowding, there won't be enough beds.

"It's mindboggling to me," she said of the lack of attention given to the problem. "We haven't been able to move the dial on presenting some transitional spaces for these individuals." 

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to the Defenders team by emailing money@wcnc.com.

She said this is an area where the public can help drive policy.

"When there's a need as critical as this one is, the public and the voting people, they need to be calling, they need to be writing and saying, 'We want this to be a priority in the State of North Carolina,'" Rep. Cunningham said. "If it's not close, if it not's personal, then we have a way of saying, 'Out of sight, out of mind.'"

It's incredibly personal to those facing this as a reality.

"It absolutely is not a priority," the mother said.

She's now on a mission to turn her family's pain into a promise of better care and family support.

"Who wants their kids to sleep on the floor?" she said. "Who wants their child who is sick and suicidal and feels like they don't have a purpose for living to sleep on a floor? That does nothing but strip her dignity."

Atrium Health runs Behavioral Health Charlotte. The health system has called this a national problem but assured the public the organization does all it can to ensure each patient receives appropriate care and the best possible outcome for their situation.

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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