Local doctor takes helm at Rady Children’s Hospital’s mental health division

Benjamin Maxwell strives to counter burgeoning psychiatric issues among youth


Over the last decade as a psychiatrist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, Dr. Benjamin Maxwell has witnessed an exponential increase in youths experiencing mental health emergencies.

Dr. Benjamin Maxwell
Dr. Benjamin Maxwell
(Rady Children’s Hospital)

Now, the Encinitas resident will take the top leadership role in addressing the regional as well as national crisis in child mental health at Rady, the state’s largest children’s hospital system.

Maxwell recently was appointed chief of Rady’s Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Division and the Una Davis chair of Behavioral Health.

“I’ve been here at Rady Children’s Hospital a little over 10 years and I’m just really proud to be part of an organization that’s trying to make an impact on the youth mental health crisis,” Maxwell said in an interview last week. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do to expand services and give access to mental health care to more families in our region.”

In various roles at the hospital and his position as a faculty member at UCSD, Maxwell has pioneered approaches to expand care and improve clinical outcomes, a news release from Rady states.

Those leadership efforts include the opening of the Copley Psychiatric Emergency Department at the hospital and partnering with primary care pediatricians to integrate mental health services.

Dr. Patrick Frias, Rady’s chief executive officer, described Maxwell in the release as a prolific psychiatric and neuroscience expert with a plan to revolutionize mental health treatment.

“Dr. Maxwell is the leader we need to drive pediatric mental health care forward not only in our region but nationwide,” Frias said. “His appointment is a testament to the significant strides Dr. Maxwell has made during his time at Rady Children’s.”

His accomplishments, Frias said, include the advancement of the Primary Care Behavioral Health Integration Program, which serves as a model for other healthcare systems.

Maxwell said he spent half of his childhood in the Detroit area and then moved with his family to a town near Dallas.

He earned his medical degree at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston and completed his general psychiatry residency at UC Irvine’s medical school. Maxwell moved to Encinitas around 2010 while on a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at UC San Diego and Rady’s.

Early in his studies, Maxwell said, he gravitated toward working with children.

“I think the thing that attracted me to it is the amount of impact you can have if you intervene early or help a child early — that you can make this life change early on and really have these ripple effects throughout someone’s entire life,” said Maxwell, who is father to a 5-year-old daughter.

“I think that was the thing that really attracted me — the ability to help put people on a course so that they could lead healthy and happy lives.

“I was really drawn to the idea in medical school to be able to sit down with somebody and really try to understand their experience. I think that’s due to my mindset more than anything else of wanting to understand someone else’s experience and try to be able to help where I can people who are struggling.

“The forms of suffering that can come with people struggling with mental illness, especially severe mental illness, was something I wanted to try to make an impact on.”

Unfortunately, more and more children are being diagnosed with mental health issues.

In a special section on mental illness titled “72 Hours” published last month in The San Diego Union-Tribune, a chart illustrates that psychiatric holds at area hospitals of children up to age 17 increased 34.4 percent over the two decades ending in fiscal year 2020-2021.

“Over the past decade, and this is something that’s been happening across the country, at Rady Children’s Hospital we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of psychiatric emergencies arriving to our general emergency department,” Maxwell said.

“It’s what we view as a major crisis that kids are getting to the point they might need to be seen by an emergency department. Nationally, we’ve seen rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts increase over the last decade.”

Undoubtedly, Maxwell said, the coronavirus pandemic, with the constraints placed on social interactions and the temporary closure of schools, has been a contributing factor.

The trend, however, was well underway before the pandemic.

“It’s likely (due to) a combination of many different factors that are changing in the way kids are growing up,” he said. “Certainly, social connection is something that is really helpful for kids’ essential health wellness and that is something that has potentially changed over the last decade or more.

“Social media is something that kids struggle with ... and could play a role with some kids as far as mental health goes. There seems to be in many schools added academic pressure to succeed and pressure to succeed athletically. Those are things we see in some of the patients we care for.

“It’s hard to pinpoint an individual cause to the entire youth mental health crisis, but it seems that things are changing in society in a way that makes it challenging for many kids to navigate the modern world.”

In his new role, Maxwell said he hopes to guide regional resources in finding better ways to support children suffering from mental health challenges.

“One of the things we’ve been doing over the past few years is embedding mental health expertise into primary care pediatric clinics as a way to increase access to care for kids and families,” Maxwell said. “We’ve trained over 200 pediatricians in caring for the mental health challenges of kids. We partner very closely with those primary care clinics.

“We’re really hoping that we can utilize our partnerships to get more kids and families the care they need when they need it and identify kids struggling early on with the hope that we can change the trajectory of those kids that might be struggling and hopefully put them back on a path toward psychological development.”

Newly developed research techniques and data are generating innovative strategies in improving children’s psychological health.

“There is no health without mental health, and physical health and mental health are closely connected,” Maxwell said. “I think now that we know more, we’re in a good position to help kids and their families to realize their full potential.”