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‘All I could do is pray.’ Desperate parents seek help for mentally ill son, with few options

Christyl and Corey Champion sit for an interview about the struggles getting treatment for...
Christyl and Corey Champion sit for an interview about the struggles getting treatment for their their mentally ill son.(Corey Schmidt)
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 10:27 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2021 at 10:32 AM EDT
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ROCK HILL, S.C. (WBTV) – Christly and Corey Champion were out of options on the night of June 26, 2021.

Their son, Corey, Jr., was acting out. He’d punched holes in the wall of their house.

They had to call police for help.

But, when police arrived, they didn’t offer much.

“There’s nothing that they could do about it unless, you know, I wanted to press charges,” Corey, Sr. recalled.

“Why do I want to press charges on my child when I know that he’s mentally ill? Right now I want to get him help.”

Their son, who is 17, has schizophrenia. That night, he was experiencing episodes of paranoia.

Instead of having him taken to jail, the Champions got a court order to have him involuntarily committed to the local hospital.

But that meant sitting in the ER. And, it turned out, their son would spend three weeks in the emergency room waiting on an inpatient bed to become available on either side of the state line.

“Every single day, I mean every single day went by, they would come back in there and tell me the same thing: there’s a bed on hold but you can’t get it yet. You’re on a wait list,” Corey, Jr. recalled.

He never got an inpatient bed. Instead, he would eventually be discharged into a partial-day inpatient program in North Carolina.

The Champions experienced firsthand the struggle to treat mentally ill kids and teens in the Carolinas.

There’s a critical shortage of inpatient beds in our region and across the country and it’s only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Carolina has just 407 licensed psychiatric beds for children and adolescents, not including state-run facilities, according to data reported to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The 2020 South Carolina Health Plan, prepared by the Department of Health and Environmental Control, showed the state had 629 beds for children and adolescents. The report estimated the state could use more than 200 additional beds to meet demand.

Paula Bird, Vice President for Behavioral Health Services at Novant, said her system feels the strain just like every other hospital in the state.

“We have 15 beds at Presbyterian [Hospital] and all those beds are filled,” she said, of Novant’s main hospital in Charlotte. “And they’re always filled.”

Bird said one main factor keeping private providers from expanding the number of mental health beds in the state is the fact that they’re reimbursed at a lower rate than other services, which means hospitals lose money on them.

As a result, the beds that do exist stay full and children, like Corey, Jr., spend more time in the ER.

“If you’re in crisis, the ED is not the place where you’re going to be able to get better quickly,” Bird said.

Barbara-Ann Bybel, Director of Psychiatry Services at UNC Health, echoed Bird’s assessment on the state of system to treat mental health patients in North Carolina.

“Hospital emergency departments have just been backlogged and overflowing across the whole state and, really, it’s a national issue,” Bybel said.

While Bybel agreed more inpatient beds are needed, she said the long-term solution really rests with implanting strategies to keep people from being in a crisis that requires emergency care in the first place.

“The focus really should be on the prevention,” Bybel said. “People end up in the emergency room when they’re in crisis. So, if we could focus on how to prevent the crisis, which is looking for the early warning signs.”

Both Bird and Bybel are taking part in an upcoming panel hosted by the N.C. Healthcare Association focused on how to improve behavioral healthcare in North Carolina.

But that won’t help families like the Champions now, who are hopeful the recent treatment their son is now getting will help him make substantial progress.

“I’m hoping he doesn’t have a setback,” Corey, Sr. said.

“We are spiritual, we’re Christians and we pray. And, so, you know, we pray that God will deliver him from what he’s going through right now. And I do believe that he will be.”

Christyl Champion said she contacted WBTV out of desperation, feeling like she was out of options. She decided to speak out to shine a light on what families like hers are experiencing in battling mental illness.

“People see the homeless people and what they don’t realize is those homeless people were once kids like my child,” she said.

“And the families have exhausted their resources. The kids haven’t gotten the help and they end up, you know, on the streets. And that’s just no place for him to be.”

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