Joplin to get children's center

Missouri is providing money to open a children’s trauma center in Joplin to aid youths coping with behavioral and mental health issues following the city’s devastating tornado strike.

The creation of the specialized center for children comes as the Joplin area is seeing a significant increase in mental health needs for both children and adults, the state Department of Mental Health said Wednesday. A powerful May 22 tornado killed at least 153 people, injured hundreds of others and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in the Joplin area.

“People have performed phenomenally, but that does not mean they will not experience the after-effects of stress,” state mental health director Keith Schafer told a House budget committee gathering information about the tornado’s effect on social services.

In the first three weeks following the tornado, the quantity of calls and the face-to-face contacts have tripled the normal monthly amount at the Ozark Center, a behavioral health center run by Freeman Health System in Joplin. More patients are coming to hospital emergency rooms with psychiatric symptoms, there appears to be an increase in court-ordered commitments for people who pose a danger to themselves or others, and there have been two suicides related to the tornado, the state mental health agency said.

Mental health officials said they are particularly concerned about the tornado’s effect on children, who can suffer from anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder following major disasters that disrupt their lives. The loss of a house or neighborhood, having a parent without a job or losing friends whose families move because of the tornado can all cause stress for children, said state mental health officials.

“From a child’s point of view, it’s kind of like an ongoing trauma,” said Joseph Parks, the medical director for the state Department of Mental Health.

Schafer said it will cost about $2 million annually to run the specialized children’s trauma service through the Ozark Center. That money was not included in the state budget that Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law last week. But Schaefer said the state is committed to providing the money anyway, with hopes that the federal government or others can help cover some of the costs for its long-term operation.

To highlight the need, Schafer cited the case of a 13-year-old Joplin girl who now is afraid to sleep in her own bed because of tornado-induced anxiety.

“The next storm that comes down through Joplin and the sky gets black, it’s going to create a visceral reaction on the part of a number of children that they would not normally experience,” Schafer said.

The tornado damaged or destroyed 27 child care centers in Joplin that had slots for 715 children, according to the state Department of Social Services. Of those, 160 child-care slots have been restored so far, the department said. The tornado also destroyed an eight-bed adolescent girl’s treatment center operated by Preferred Family Health.

The mental health of adults is also of concern. About two-thirds of the area’s 63 acute-care psychiatric beds were lost when the tornado destroyed St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin. To meet the rising demand for psychiatric care, Schafer said the state is funding a new community-based effort that will work with patients in their own homes for two-to-four weeks after a brief stay in a hospital. The effort could cost $1.7 million, of which some portion may be covered by federal Medicaid dollars, he said.

The state also has asked Freeman to convert a 20-bed geriatric psychiatric unit into an area for acute-care psychiatric needs for patients of all ages, and St. John’s is seeking to re-open psychiatric beds either by purchasing a building already under construction or by using an empty building at the Nevada Habilitation Center, about 60 miles to the north.

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