It's a nation-wide problem affecting local families. A shortage of psychiatrists means adults, teens and kids who desperately need help aren't getting it. The reason for the shortage? Med students are choosing other specialties. Our Fact Finder team dug deeper into a new kind of care local psychiatric centers are using to try and bridge the gap.
Bronson Ellenwine, a 16-year-old Rolling Prairie sophomore, described the darkness of his depression.
“You feel like the world is crashing down. Lightness becomes dark, you feel empty. You feel like nobody cares, there’s nobody there for you,” he said. “It was pretty scary. I didn’t know what to do so I resulted in attempted suicide.”
Bronso was just 15 when he slit his wrists last December, so his dad admitted him to Memorial Epworth Center – the old Madison Center – which is an inpatient psychiatric care hospital in South Bend.
“[It was] the hardest thing I ever had to do,” said Bronson’s dad, Alvie Ellenwine. “You admitted your kid into the psychiatric ward because he's got depression issues and he wants to kill himself?”
That’s where Bronson met child and adult psychiatrist Eve Dreyfus. She saw him face-to-face several times that week in December, then Bronson was released and Dr. Dreyfus went back home to her family in California.
Bronson and his dad agreed to participate in what Epworth calls “telepsych” – visits with his doctor on a computer screen. It’s like a Skype session but on an encrypted or coded line to protect his privacy and it’s a growing trend because there aren’t enough psychiatrists.
“I’ve run into people with 10 years of auditory hallucinations with suicidal ideation, no care,” Dr. Dreyfus said. “[Those people] can’t get a doctor, can’t get a child psychiatrist for even a year sometimes. They don’t have insurance. This allows people to have access to child and adolescent psychiatry on an encrypted line, right away.”
Dr. Dreyfus is Epworth’s only adolescent psychiatrist but she’s only in South Bend 8 or 9 days a month. The rest of the time she spends 8 hours a day at her home in California seeing patients through telepsych.
“For me, it’s such a simple cure for such an awful problem,” said the Board Certified psychologist.
“Bless his heart, he’s had a tough life,” said Alvie Ellenwine, his eyes filling with tears.
Bronson’s twin brother died from brain tumors when the boys were just two years old. His parents divorced when he was nine. Late last year, Dr. Dreyfus diagnosed Bronson with a genetic mood disorder and ADHD. He smoked pot and was on the path to failing the 10th grade.
“I’m really impressed with the progress that you’ve made, Bronson! It’s been amazing!” Dr. Dreyfus told the teen during a recent telepsych treatment session.
But there’s a lot of controversy in psychiatric journals about whether telemedicine is ethical and if it really works. Epworth isn't the only local facility using it. Oaklawn Psychiatric Center is also treating some kids with telemedicine because the wait for in-person visits and evaluations can be up to four months.
“Our psychiatrists report that the clients have been as stable, they feel, as the clients that they see in their office face-to-face,” said Chris Schoeninger, Oaklawn’s Vice President of Medical Services.
Schoeninger said she was skeptical at first, but the program is working out better than she expected. However, she stressed online psych sessions should not take the place of face-to-face meetings.
“One of the things we have to be very careful about is screening and making sure clients are comfortable using the technology and if they aren't, we will make sure they are seen face-to-face in person,” she added.
But the soft-spoken Bronson said psychiatric treatment over the internet helped him out of the darkness of depression and into a newer, positive light.
“All those kids out there that are like me, or were like me, they just need to keep their heads up. The sun shines even when the clouds are there, you know?” he said.
Dr. Dreyfus said the world needs to have a more open mind when it comes to telemedicine because the need for care is so great. She also believes the movie theatre massacre in Aurora, Colorado and the murders of 27 kids and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticuit could have been prevented if troubled kids had better access to psychiatric care.