In a bid to create desperately needed psychiatric hospital beds for children and teens in crisis, Santa Clara County officials last week unveiled plans to build a new state-of-the-art facility right in the heart of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
The 77-bed hospital building, which is expected to cost $233 million and finish construction by the end of 2023, would consolidate emergency psychiatric services and inpatient care for those suffering from mental illness across all ages. The design carves out one unit specifically for adolescent youth ages 13 to 17, and another for children age 12 and younger.
If built, the facility would fill a significant gap in mental health care that has plagued Santa Clara County for years. With a dearth of psychiatric beds in the region, teens and young children who are faced with a mental health crisis are frequently forced to travel long distances in order to receive care. Families are sent as far as Sacramento or Bakersfield in order to find an inpatient psychiatric bed for their child, making a difficult experience even worse.
Hundreds of kids in Santa Clara County are admitted to psychiatric hospitals each year, almost all of whom must seek care beyond the county line. Limited beds are available for teens in South San Jose, but none are available for children age 12 and younger.
The proposed 190,000-square-foot hospital building has two 21-bed units for adults on a separate floor from the adolescent and child units, with special attention to ensure adult and child patients never cross paths. The building will have a bridge connecting to the emergency department as well as space devoted to mental health urgent care, relocating most mental health services spread out across the Valley Medical Center (VMC) campus.
The pediatric unit includes so-called "med-psych" beds, available for patients who need both medical and psychiatric treatment at the same time. No such beds are currently available anywhere in the Bay Area.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a long-time advocate for a youth psychiatric hospital, said in a statement that children suffering from mental health crises should be able to receive treatment in their own community rather than being forced to travel to Vallejo, Concord, Santa Rosa and Sacramento for care.
"On any given day, more than a dozen Santa Clara County children are being hospitalized for psychiatric emergencies outside the County," Simitian said. "Separating these kids from their families at one of the toughest times in their lives, that's just hell on them."
Though Santa Clara County has a statewide reputation as a progressive leader in mental health care, the lack of hospital beds has been a nagging problem that county officials have been trying to solve for close to a decade. Previous efforts to create an adolescent psychiatric unit go back to at least 2011, each time with the county asking outside agencies to bear the high cost of building and operating such a facility.
The breakthrough finally came in 2018, when county supervisors agreed that Santa Clara County -- not a private hospital or outside health care provider -- should take the lead with its own new facility. The future facility is expected to take patients referred from Kaiser, El Camino Hospital and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, none of which have inpatient psychiatric services for children, and will accept those with and without insurance.
While serving children and teens was the goal, the new facility will serve mostly adults and have a full complement of adult psychiatric services. According to staff, the existing psychiatric buildings at Valley Medical Center are in poor condition and have serious design flaws that are not ideal for patients and pose a security risk, including "blind" hallways and features that are not fixed to the floor.
The Barbara Arons Pavilion, where staff report being frequently assaulted by patients, was built in the 1980s and still has mostly shared rooms, which is no longer the norm for psychiatric facilities. The newly designed hospital building would replace the pavilion.