As schools shifted to distance learning and extracurricular activities were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, many kids lost vital resources for maintaining their mental health.
Government figures show the proportion of children who arrived in emergency departments with mental health issues increased 24% from mid-March through mid-October 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. The increase was 31% among preteens and adolescents. Anecdotally, Kaiser Health News reported, some hospitals said they are seeing more cases of severe depression and suicidal thoughts among children, particularly attempts to overdose.
But it isn’t just counseling and other lifelines that are disappearing for these kids.
“In some hospitals, the number of children unable to immediately get a bed in the psychiatric unit rose,” Kaiser reported. “Others reduced the number of beds or closed psychiatric units altogether to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
“It’s only a matter of time before a tsunami sort of reaches the shore of our service system, and it’s going to be overwhelmed with the mental health needs of kids,” said Jason Williams, a psychologist and director of operations of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “I think we’re just starting to see the tip of the iceberg, to be honest with you.”
According to the most recent National Survey of Children’s Health, more than 8 million children ages 3-17 were diagnosed with a mental or behavioral health condition before the pandemic hit. And a survey from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 1 in 3 high school students in 2019 said they felt “persistently sad and hopeless” — a 40% increase from 2009.
COVID-19 is just adding to the problem, Kaiser wrote: “A review of 80 studies found forced isolation and loneliness among children correlated with an increased risk of depression.”
“We’re all social beings, but they’re at the point in their development where their peers are their reality,” Terrie Andrews, a psychologist and administrator of behavioral health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Florida, said about teenagers. “Their peers are their grounding mechanism.”
Andrews said up to 25 children have been held on surgical floors at Wolfson Children’s while waiting for a spot in the inpatient psychiatric unit. Their wait could last as long as five days, she told Kaiser.
Many facilities see a decline in patients during the summer when kids get to hang out more with friends.
“We never saw that during the pandemic,” said Andrews. “We stayed completely busy the entire time.”
And when therapists can finally treat a child, coronavirus safeguards can get in the way. Wearing a mask hinders the ability to read a kid’s expressions, and online meetings make it difficult to build a personal relationship and trust.
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