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Why Kids With Psychiatric Issues End Up in the Emergency Room

One boy's story shows what ER doctors are up against

Writer: Laura Prager, MD, and Abigail Louise Donovan, MD

Clinical Expert: Laura Prager, MD, and Abigail Louise Donovan, MD

The following is an excerpt from Suicide by Security Blanket, and Other Stories From the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service, a book by Laura M. Prager, MD, and Abigail L. Donovan, MD, both emergency room doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital. The book tells the stories of 12 children in crisis: how they ended up in the ER, what happened to them there, and what could have been done to help solve their problems before they became acute. This is one story.

His name was Gabriel, but the chubby eight-year-old boy squirming slightly on a chair had not been billed as an angel. He had been sent directly from school to the Acute Psychiatry Service (APS) at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) after he threatened to stab his second-grade teacher.

The teacher, Miss Manchester, had discovered Gabriel drawing a picture that showed him happily impaling her with a knife. She was so upset that she snatched the drawing from Gabriel’s desk, left the classroom, and ran to the vice principal’s office brandishing the picture.

The vice principal did not bother speaking with the little boy. He called Gabriel’s mother to insist that she come right that minute to get her child and remove him from the premises. “We can’t have our students threatening their teachers. I think Gabriel needs help,” he said to the mother when she arrived. “You will need a doctor’s note that says that he can safely return to school,” were his parting words as she grabbed Gabriel by the hand and hustled him and his heavy backpack out the door and down the path to her car.

“The vice principal says that he threatened Miss Manchester, but I don’t believe it. He’s not that kind of boy. He wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

The interview

Interview rooms at APS are quite small and uncomfortable with uniformly dirty beige walls and floor, usually furnished with two or three blue chairs and a desk bolted to the wall. Gabriel took one chair, his mother another, and the doctor the third. Then Dr. G started at the beginning: name, age, address, insurance company, legal guardian. All of that information was, of course, already stored somewhere in the hospital database, but asking the questions directly sometimes has added benefits.

“My name is Gabriel,” answered Gabriel. “I live in Revere.”

“No, you don’t,” interjected his mother, “You live in Winthrop. We just moved,” she explained apologetically. “He forgets.”

Gabriel blinked.

“Did you have to switch schools when you moved, Gabriel?” Dr. G asked him.

“No,” mother answered again. “I asked special permission for him to continue at the same school that he’s been attending since he was in kindergarten, at least until the end of the school year. I have to drive him, but it’s not far. I just don’t understand what happened today. He has been doing so well. He used to have tantrums at school all the time, but he has been much, much better. He even has a good friend in his class this year. I don’t think he’s done anything bad, not really. The vice principal says that he threatened Miss Manchester, but I don’t believe it. He’s not that kind of boy. He wouldn’t hurt anyone. He loves to draw,” she added as an afterthought, “I think it was his drawings that caused the problem.

Gabriel’s version

“Can you tell us what happened today?” Dr. G asked Gabriel.

“I drew a bad picture,” he muttered, looking down at his legs, which didn’t quite reach the floor.

“What was bad about it?”

“I was mad at Miss Manchester. It wasn’t nice.”

“Can you show it to me?”

Gabriel started rustling around in his backpack.

“Why were you so mad at her?”

“It was reading. We were having reading. I’m supposed to be reading about Clifford, but she gave me a chapter book.”

Clifford the Big Red Dog?” The resident had suddenly remembered the cartoon in which a large red dog parades around a town doing good deeds.

For the first time, Gabriel looked up. He smiled shyly at Dr. G. “Yeah. Clifford. I like Clifford. She told me I was too old for Clifford and I should read something else.”

A learning disability

“Gabriel has a learning disability,” his mother said. “Reading is difficult for him. He gets special help. His regular teacher, Mrs. S, works with him on reading. I don’t know why Miss Manchester didn’t remember that.”

“But I thought Miss Manchester was the teacher?” Dr. G asked.

“She’s the assistant teacher. She’s very young, but she’s filling in because Mrs. S is out having a baby.”

Gabriel suddenly hopped out of his chair and began to move somewhat aimlessly around the room. “I was mad,” he said, and his eyes filled with tears. “I drew a picture. I was really mad, and so I thought about stabbing Miss Manchester with a knife.” He went back to his chair, reached into his backpack, and pulled out a sheaf of papers.

“Here,” he said, thrusting a piece of paper into Dr. G’s hand.

“I drew this and Miss Manchester got really upset. She almost started to cry. I didn’t want her to cry. I was just mad.” Tears ran down the boy’s cheeks. He ran to his mother and hid his face on her shoulder. She put her arm around him.

Gabriel’s remorse

“He’s not a bad boy,” she said. “He’s never hurt anyone. He never even gets into fights with the other kids. They sometimes make fun of him, but he never does anything.”

Dr. G looked at Gabriel’s mother and then at Gabriel.

“What does your picture mean?” Dr. G asked him.

“I was so mad that I wanted to hurt her. See, I took a big knife and I hurt her with it. See, she is crying.”

“So after Miss Manchester got upset, then what happened?”

“I drew another picture,” he mumbled into his mother’s shoulder.

“You drew another picture? Can I see that one, too?”

“I didn’t really want to hurt Miss Manchester. I was just mad at her.” Gabriel sat down on the floor. “It was just a picture,” he said after a bit.

“Where is the other picture?”

Gabriel pulled his backpack toward him and started taking everything out. Soon, amidst his crumpled papers, he found another sheet that he handed to his mother.

“She was crying, so I drew this,” he said.

“Did Miss Manchester see this second picture?” asked Dr. G.

“No,” replied Gabriel. “She ran out of the room before I could show it to her.” He leaned forward and put his head in his hands.

“You see,” said mother, “I told you that Gabriel was a good kid.”

“I like Miss Manchester,” he said, lifting his head up to look at Dr. G. Then he added, shyly, “I thought she liked me, too. I knew I had made her upset. I wanted to make up. That’s what you do,” he asked Dr. G, “isn’t it? It was just a picture. I didn’t really hurt her. She’s my teacher. I don’t want to hurt her. Sometimes she’s nice.”

Violent drawings

Scary drawings are the catalyst for many children’s emergency room visits. In the post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech era, teachers and administrators are understandably afraid to interpret violent drawings and reach conclusions about their students’ ideas or fantasies, capabilities or intentions.

While it is usually teenagers who draw graphic images of dismemberment or mass destruction, on occasion elementary school children are referred for similar reasons. There is little if any evidence that children’s violent drawings portend violent action, but that fact can be difficult to remember when one is faced with these dramatic and sometimes gory pictures.

School administrators and even seasoned therapists often demand an emergency psychiatric evaluation when confronted with their students’ or patients’ explicit or powerful drawings.

Related: Kids in Crisis: What Sends Kids to the ER?

Not all children sent directly to the ER from school with the question “safe to return?” stamped on their registration packet come with the answer to that question sketched on notebook paper in black and white.

Drawings are usually only an admission ticket; they must be understood in the context of the child’s developmental stage and social environment. After Dr. G met with Gabriel and his mother, he spoke with the attending psychiatrist and then called the vice principal to talk about what had happened and discuss how he might help teacher and student to mend their fences.

Luckily, Gabriel was just an eight-year-old with a learning disability, perhaps somewhat less mature than many of his second-grade classmates, who was embarrassed that he read less well than other members of his class. When his teacher shamed him, he got upset and angry and drew a picture to express his feelings.

Managing feelings

But Gabriel had strengths; he had the ability to manage those feelings by drawing pictures, not by throwing a tantrum, or running out of the classroom, or hurting himself or anyone else. He knew his picture would hurt his teacher’s feelings. To make amends, he quickly drew another one to show that, even though he was mad, he still loved her. He had experienced intense and disturbing emotions: he wanted both to hurt her as he had been hurt and to love her the way he wanted to be loved.

In an effort to master his feelings and prevent himself from acting in a way that he knew was reprehensible, Gabriel drew a picture of his fantasies, both the good and the bad. Not only did he draw them clearly, he was willing to talk about them when asked.

If only all school-age children sent to the emergency room directly from school could tell a story like Gabriel’s, one in which child development played out in all its glory right in front of our eyes. Gabriel’s drawings were not the problem, they were the solution. His mother and, later, his other teachers described Gabriel as a sweet boy who was liked by his classmates; he used to have tantrums when frustrated and upset in which he cried and occasionally sucked his thumb, but he had matured over the past year and rarely got upset in class despite his ongoing struggles with reading.

Low risk

He had never hurt anyone before, nor had anyone hurt him; the likelihood that he would do something dangerous in his second-grade classroom was low.

No psychiatrist, regardless of experience or skill, can, after one interview, predict a patient’s future actions, not even those of an eight-year-old with a penchant for drawing. No child leaves the APS with a note guaranteeing that he can be safely at school; there are no guarantees. In Gabriel’s case, Dr. G recommended that the teacher and the vice principal meet with Gabriel, listen to his entire story, and then make a judgment as to whether or not they could welcome him back to the class.

The decision as to whether or not Gabriel was safe in the second grade ultimately rested with the school. Would Miss Manchester, the object of his anger and admiration, continue to worry that Gabriel would come after her or would she be able to understand the conflicted, intense feelings of her student and appreciate them as an example of a normal developmental stage? Would she be willing to try to work with him, perhaps in conjunction with a school social worker or psychologist, in order to help Gabriel express his feelings differently? Let’s hope so. Gabriel was certainly no angel, but he wasn’t a demon, either.

Excerpt from Suicide by Security Blanket, and Other Stories from the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service: What Happens to Children with Acute Mental Illness © 2012 by Laura Marie Prager, MD, and Abigail Louise Donovan, MD. Published by The Praeger Series on Contemporary Health and Living.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.