Officials and experts have sounded the alarm over the state of children’s mental health as the second pandemic year comes to a close, warning a crisis is emerging – but advocates, hospitals and schools say it may have already arrived.
Short-staffed children’s hospitals were slammed with increased emergency department visits for mental health, suicide and self injury cases in the first nine months of 2021 compared to the same period last year.
At the same time, already strained schools with limited resources have been left to face a growing need for mental health assistance as many children returned to in-person school this fall with increased symptoms of depression and anxiety after COVID-19 flipped their worlds upside down.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency for children’s mental health in October shortly after the back-to-school season.
But AACAP President Warren Yiu Kee Ng said the situation has “gotten worse” since that declaration, with the scope being “even larger than we imagined.”
“I think that we are in the deep end of a mental health crisis, and I think that the COVID-19 pandemic is only making it worse,” he said.
Children’s hospitals recorded almost 38 percent more emergency department visits for mental health cases and nearly 54 percent more suicide and self-injury cases in the third quarter of 2021 compared to 2020, according to the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA).
CHA President Amy Wimpey Knight said some hospitals saw suicide and self-injury cases in the emergency department triple and even quadruple. Many hospitals are also seeing between 20 and 50 boarders daily, or patients kept in emergency beds until spots in psychiatric treatment programs open up, who ultimately have their care delayed.
“I think the pandemic has taken everyone to the max really, and so children’s hospitals are no different,” she said. “We are also extremely short-staffed.”
According to experts, the pediatric mental health crisis was already emerging in the decade before the pandemic, which “exacerbated” and “accelerated” the problem.
“What we kind of expect right now is the next five to 10 years, we’ll see an escalation of this because of what’s happened to kids, primarily in the five to … 18 range right now,” Wimpey Knight said.
Still, Alysha Thompson, the clinical director of the psychiatry and behavioral medicine unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital, pointed out action is also needed to address the current problems.
“There are a lot of things that we can do that will put out fires a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, which are really exciting and need to be put in place now,” she said. “And the reality is those things take time. They’re not gonna address the current fire. And so, as we are addressing all of these things for youth mental health, we need to think about how to do both.”
The two months on record with the most emergency department mental health visits at Seattle Children’s Hospital were October and …….