The Cambridge Health Alliance opened the Center for Inpatient Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at its Somerville campus on Tuesday. The new center adds more than 40 beds for children, adolescents and youth with autism spectrum disorders, more than doubling the hospital’s previous capacity.

The opening comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the ongoing mental health crisis and psychiatric bed shortages, but the center was in the works prior to the pandemic's onset in 2020, said Sharmila Mehta, director of child and adolescent inpatient psychology and clinical programming at CHA.

“We were already aware of the significant challenges and bed shortages for children and adolescents,” she said. “It was contributing to wait times in emergency rooms and children basically not being able to access care.”

The pandemic has negatively impacted young people's mental health of young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 37% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. Forty-four percent also reported feeling consistently hopeless or sad during the past year.

Leigh Simons Youman, senior director of healthcare policy at the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, said the pandemic also made it harder for patients to receive treatment.

“The pandemic has had a large effect on all of us,” she said. “What's happened is we're seeing increased volume and need for behavioral health care and also increased acuity when patients do present needing services.”

When the pandemic started, mental health services everywhere began closing, leaving inpatient facilities to be the only service that remained open.

“Any child with acute mental health issues had almost no place to stop or be treated other than inpatient. In-home services slowed, partial hospitalizations and CBAT [community based acute treatment] programs closed,” Mehta said. “We have had a much more significant mental health crisis on our hands in terms of offering services to kids.”

Emergency rooms began experiencing an influx of patients seeking mental health services, causing children to wait even longer for inpatient treatment. Youman says the increased number of patients is only partially contributed to the long wait times and bed shortages.

“Facilities needed to take COVID infection control measures, which has meant taking some beds off line in order to appropriately meet those measures,” she said. “Also, the behavioral health workforce before the pandemic was strained, and what we've seen is an even greater need for behavioral health workforce as a result of the pandemic.”

Mehta said opening this new facility is “really exciting” for Cambridge Health Alliance.

“Starting today, the beds are available for 24 children. That's remarkable,” she said. “It makes us feel like we have so much more ability to solve problems or support people who are trying to solve their problems.”