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The pandemic has pushed children’s mental health and access to healthcare to a “point of crisis”

Several children’s hospitals have said the supply of inpatient psychiatric beds is so short that they have had to accommodate children in their emergency departments – sometimes for weeks.

“We’ve really never seen anything like this rapid growth in kids with mental health issues and the severity of those issues. I’ve never seen this in my entire career,” said Jenna Glover, Director psychology training at Children’s Hospital Colorado. .
It got so bad that the Colorado Children’s Hospital declared a “state of emergency” in May. Glover said the number of children treated for anxiety has doubled – and the number of depression has tripled – from pre-pandemic levels. Substance and eating disorders have also increased.

From January to April of this year, behavioral health emergency department visits increased 72% from the same period two years ago, the hospital said. Numbers have declined this month and last, but there are fears there will be another spike when school resumes in August and September.

Other hospitals have seen even larger increases. In January, Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, for example, said it had seen a 300% increase in the number of behavioral health emergency room admissions since April 2020.

“Children’s mental health, really, has been under attack for over a year,” Glover said. “It’s probably actually worse than people think it is.”

The pandemic has pushed children’s mental health and access to healthcare to a “point of crisis”
Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts in February and March 2021 to be more than 50% higher for teenage girls, compared to 2019 They were up more than 4% for boys. From April to October 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 31% increase in the number of children aged 12 to 17 seeking help with their mental health, and a 24% increase for children aged 12 to 17. 5 to 11 years old.
In March of this year, Seattle Children’s reported seeing one or two patients each night for attempted suicide. With so few psychiatric inpatient beds in the region, the hospital has had to accommodate children in the emergency room. Some waited two weeks for a bed to become available.
With so little pediatric Psychiatric Beds Available In Massachusetts, 39% of pediatric patients who came to the emergency room with a mental health problem in 2020 ended up staying there, according to a state report.
The pandemic has pushed children’s mental health and access to healthcare to a “point of crisis”
During the pandemic, the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago reached what Dr. Jennifer Hoffmann called a “crisis point.” There have been so many mental health emergency room visits that it triggered a response usually reserved for disaster management. “This allows for coordination at the highest level of leadership in order to address the mental health crisis in children,” said Hoffmann, attending physician in emergency medicine.

Hoffmann Hospital also had to take children to the emergency department or admitted them to medical beds, where they sometimes wait for days until a psychiatric hospital bed opens. His colleague Dr John Walkup, chairman of the hospital’s Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, said the pandemic had exacerbated access problems that had existed for some time.

“We’ve never had a proper mental health system in the United States for kids – ever – and so you take an inadequate system to start with and then all of a sudden you put kids at high risk. a very difficult life and living situation. And now you have an access crisis, “Walkup said.

The pandemic has pushed children’s mental health and access to healthcare to a “point of crisis”
Many of the children his hospital treats in the emergency department had mental health issues that had never been diagnosed or were not treated adequately before the pandemic. Now, when they seek help, they cannot get a regular appointment with a therapist. Even before the pandemic, studies have shown that it can sometimes take months to get a first date.

“These kids, when you take away school, family support, income support, food assistance, housing assistance, or they lose a parent, these kids really become symptomatic in a big way,” said Walkup.

Children who can receive treatment, according to Walkup, are doing well during the pandemic. It is those who do not have access to aid that the world should be worried about.

“The world doesn’t work if we don’t have good behavioral health for children,” Walkup said.

The pandemic has pushed children’s mental health and access to healthcare to a “point of crisis”

In Colorado, the mismatch between supply and demand for additional inpatient psychiatric beds is unmatched in the pre-pandemic era, said Zach Zaslow, senior director of government affairs at Colorado Children’s Hospital.

“We end up getting kids into our emergency department or our inpatient unit, not because that’s what’s best for them, but because there is literally nowhere else to go. go, ”Zaslow said. “Sometimes they are transferred to residential facilities out of state to get the care they need, which divides families,” he said. “And it can be traumatic for children too.”

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, experts say, people have started to recognize that the system needs to change.

“The pandemic has become the great equalizer and there seems to be a broader recognition that this is something we need to address more broadly,” said Colleen Cicchetti, pediatric psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Zaslow said after the Colorado Children’s Hospital declared a state of emergency, there was bipartisan recognition of access issues. The state has set aside about $ 500 million of the money Colorado got from the federal American Recovery Act plan for behavioral health in adults and children. Colorado has also increased its funding for residential treatment facilities.

And if children can get support, there are some very effective treatments.

Bailey Lynn knows exactly how important this can be. In addition to serving on the board of directors of the Colorado Children’s Hospital, the hospital helped her with her own mental health long before the pandemic. She was bullied for much of her life, and in seventh grade she felt so isolated that she couldn’t see how to get out of it.

“This of course led to my first suicide attempt and I’ve had a few more over the years,” Lynn said.

Therapy and the ability to seek help kept her alive. But the pandemic did not leave her unscathed.

“I just remember the days when I would just turn off my computer at the end of school and lay in my bed and I didn’t have the motivation to do anything, and then I was simultaneously anxious. to do nothing. Lynn said.

Lynn said it helps to know that she’s not alone.

While chatting with her peers on the chalkboard, she learned that “everyone is just exhausted” from the pandemic. Together, they are now only “counting the days until the end of this quarantine and Covid”.


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