Dominique Bibbs, MHS, clinical coordinator for Child Services at Hall-Mercer, holding giveaway bags

Dominique Bibbs

Amid the fallout of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a critical shortage of care providers, last October, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. Philadelphia is not alone in its dearth of options for children and teens struggling with stressors and mental illness.

But the local situation is improving, slowly but surely. To efficiently provide treatment for children struggling with their mental health in the Philadelphia region, the Hall-Mercer Community Mental Health Center at Pennsylvania Hospital recently established the Connection Clinic. Led by Dominique Bibbs, MHS, clinical coordinator for Child Services at Hall-Mercer, the clinic serves as a bridge between the initial request for services and the first day of treatment.

“The need for mental health services is at an all-time high,” said Bibbs. “Through the Connection Clinic we can start supporting our adolescent patients right away and even help them manage their mental health in between appointments.”

While Bibbs and the therapists at Hall-Mercer drive the program, the Connection Clinic is assisted by 16 to 18 interns who assess and speak with patients. “Typically, with staff shortages, there would be awaitlist, but having our interns on board has allowed us to eliminate the waitlist and see more patients,” said Bibbs.

Bag of items kids can use for coping mechanismsFirst, patients are welcomed to Hall-Mercer and introduced to what therapy is like and the treatments offered in the center’s Child and Family Behavioral Health Services. High-risk patients presenting safety issues are referred to the Children’s Crisis Response Center for further support. Once a patient agrees to a form of therapy, an appointment is made within two weeks of their request.

Since its launch last September, the Connection Clinic has seen nearly 100 patients. The clinic partners with local health centers and schools, providing flyers at these locations to connect children who have mental health concerns with the Clinics.

Many children are enrolled by their parents in the Connection Clinic due to identity concerns, such as trying to process their sexuality, in addition to dealing with grief and loss due to the increase in gun violence in the city. (According to a Penn Medicine study published in JAMA Pediatrics, children residing within two to three blocks of an episode of gun violence had greater odds of having a mental health–related emergency department visit.)

“They become anxious or depressed because they don’t know why they’re feeling this way and they don’t have anybody to talk to,” said Bibbs. “We’re here to welcome them and recommend them to one of Hall-Mercer’s services that would be most appropriate to help them manage these feelings.”

In Fall 2021, the Connection Clinic was awarded a Penn Medicine CAREs grant to support their new initiative of “gift bags” for patients. The drawstring bags, equipped with specific items based on a patient’s age, will be filled with a variety of tools, such as a mindfulness coloring book with crayons or colored pencils, fidget toys, stress balls, essential oil inhalers, and a journal to write feelings. The goal? To introduce healthy coping mechanisms in between appointments.

“In most cases, kids don’t have a coping mechanism,” said Bibbs. “We’re hoping they can explore what works best for them and identify with at least one of these items prior to coming to therapy.” The Clinic hopes to expand services for patients’ parents, offering a parent support group and information packets on how to help with coping and comforting their child. The Clinic team also plans to develop group therapy sessions for the children to offer an additional service if a personal therapist is unavailable.

“It’s been rewarding to help so many kids in just a few months of opening the Connection Clinic,” said Bibbs. “Mental health is my passion, particularly working with at-risk youth. We’re breaking stigmas around therapy and advocating that seeking help is okay and healthy.”

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