The pandemic has pushed the number of children and adolescents struggling with their mental health to a critical level, leading three organizations to declare a national emergency. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association are calling for multiple measures to alleviate the situation.
Christopher Pruitt, MD, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and medical director of the emergency department at MUSC Children’s Hospital Shawn Jenkins, sees the need firsthand. âThese children often come later in the evening when no other resources are available. Considering that they would benefit from inpatient psychiatric care, these resources are incredibly limited. Hospital beds for children and adolescents are very popular everywhere.
This needs to change, he said. Children need better treatment, sooner, and their families need more options.
âThere is a shortage of mental health care providers for children and adolescents across the country. There is a lack of timely resources for children struggling with depression. The way this manifests is if there is a time of crisis or a time when a parent or teacher learns that a child is suicidal; there are very few ways for these adults to ensure that these young people are safe.
The Declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health cites the need to:
- More money to pay for scientifically valid mental health care for children.
- Less paperwork.
- Better access to telehealth.
- More mental health care in schools, primary care physician appointments and other community settings.
- Better ways to ease the strain on emergency services.
- Full funding of programs that connect families with mental health help.
- More people in mental health care, including people from under-represented communities.
- New policies that ensure compliance with laws on parity in mental health.
Organizations that released the statement noted that between March and October 2020, emergency room visits for mental health emergencies increased by 24% for children aged 5 to 11 and by more than 30% for children aged 5 to 11. 12 to 17 years old. And in early 2021, suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12 to 17 jumped more than 50% compared to the same period in 2019.
It is the national image. Locally, this year, mental health visits to the emergency department at MUSC’s Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital are up noticeably. âIt’s an unusual day when I arrive in the emergency room and we don’t have at least a few kids waiting for a psychiatric bed to open,â Pruitt said.
So what is behind the mental health numbers? The emergency declaration cites not only the stress caused by the pandemic, but also inequalities linked to structural racism and the fact that more than 140,000 children in this country have lost a primary or secondary caregiver to COVID.
But Pruitt said it’s not just that kids directly worry about COVID or racism or loss. The other people in their life can also experience stress – and it can affect anyone.
âThese problems are multifactorial. It doesn’t take a doctor to know that a child’s or teen’s mental health issues can be the science and chemistry of the brain, but often it comes down to family dynamics. Your family setting and your support systems can be very difficult to manage – things that involve our country’s infrastructure, the family unit or school. “
He encouraged parents and caregivers to find where to get help. âEvery family should know what their immediate support system is. Most of the schools in our area have a very good mental health resource, someone who has been placed in the schools, âsaid Pruitt.
âObviously, we also want parents to talk to their kids and keep the communication open. If a problem arises and there could be imminent danger, if your child is expressing suicidal thoughts, for example, you don’t want to wait. You want to build on the resources that you have and that you have realized. You don’t want to assume that it’s just going to go away or that it’s a phase because the consequences could be dire. “
Pruitt hopes the declaration of emergency will lead to swift action that will help children and their families, saving lives. “The goal is to galvanize both citizens and lawmakers to push for change in our communities and to make arrangements that ensure all resources are available to help these children and families in crisis.”