Now Leading Cause of Trauma Death, Child Suicides Spur New Prevention Campaign
Cook Children’s Joy campaign aims to encourage hope and resilience
One in a series.
One year into COVID-19, it’s clear the pandemic is taking a toll on the mental wellbeing of children and teens.
In March, a record 43 patients were admitted to Cook Children’s Medical Center after attempting suicide. This staggering figure is nearly double the number of suicidal patients seen during the same time period of 2020. Even worse, kids are dying. Last year, Cook Children’s recorded seven suicide deaths, marking the first time suicide was the leading cause of trauma deaths at the hospital, surpassing child abuse and car wrecks.
“The mental health crisis was already happening, then it met a global pandemic and these are the consequences,” said Kristen Pyrc, M.D., co-medical director of Psychiatry at Cook Children’s.
“They’re less engaged and have less interaction with others, and instead are spending more time online and in virtual settings. And it’s hard for them to be hopeful about anything because so many things, like prom and graduation parties, are canceled.”
The issue is not unique to North Texas. Doctors and nurses from across the nation are reporting similar statistics. In February, NPR released an article titled “Child Psychiatrists Warn That The Pandemic May Be Driving Up Kids' Suicide Risk.” It found that children’s hospitals across the U.S. are seeing up a 250% increase in suicidal patients in emergency rooms since the pandemic began. While there are no nationwide numbers on child suicides in 2020 available yet, experts agree there is reason to be concerned.
More children are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts than at any time in recent memory. Pediatricians like Kathleen Powderly, M.D. from Cook Children’s Pediatrics Magnolia say children as young as 7 are needing help.
“I’ve had a couple of elementary school students, which you don’t see very often, who are actively suicidal or have already had a suicide attempt. I’ve also managed more kids on antidepressants since the pandemic because it’s hard to get into doctors right now,” Dr. Powderly said. “COVID-19 is not as impactful in terms of volume of cases in pediatrics, but our volume of psychiatric patients has increased quite a bit.”
Previously, Dr. Powderly was the medical director of Cook Children’s Hospitalist Group, the attending physicians who care for children in the hospital. She says her team was seeing an increase in suicidal patients before she transitioned into the office setting five years ago and that the pandemic created a perfect storm. On top of the stressors kids were already dealing with, they’re now struggling with isolation, virtual school, and a loss of activities.
“We’re not going to be able to flip the switch and just go back to normal when this is over,” said Dr. Powderly. “This is going to take some time to come out of. I’ve even had patients tell me they’re struggling with being around people.”
Members of Cook Children’s Youth Advisory Council shared similar experiences in a recent meeting. The teens said they feel more anxious being around their friends in person because they’re so used to only seeing people online now. In addition to new stressors, there is a severe lack of mental health resources across the board.
A Growing Need
“There weren’t enough psychiatric beds to begin with, and then COVID happened and the capacity was reduced because you can’t have patients sharing rooms,” said Dr. Pyrc.
The need for more inpatient psychiatric beds for children and teens has been known for years. In 2017, Cook Children’s opened the Rees-Jones Behavioral Health Center to help address the issue. The unit has 15 inpatient beds available for children between the ages of 2 and 12. As we reported when the center opened, the kids who end up here are patients with complex trauma, medical and social needs. They are often suicidal or have tried to hurt someone else. Eight out of 10 have had something traumatic happen to them. They have either been abused physically or sexually, or they have experienced some sort of neglect.
Teenagers who need inpatient psychiatric care have to be treated elsewhere but often end up waiting on the medical floor of Cook Children’s until a bed opens up in the community, which can take days. With more kids needing these services, it’s not uncommon for Cook Children’s to have a dozen or more patients waiting in a regular hospital room for a transfer to a psychiatric facility that can care for them.
“There are just not enough resources in general,” said Dr. Pyrc. “It’s an awful place to be in. This is a national problem, but it affects us here locally. We need more funding and we need more mental health professionals to care for these patients.”
On the outpatient side, finding a licensed therapist to see a child can take months. The waitlist just to see a counselor at Cook Children’s can be as high as 250 days at any given time. Even with easier access to appointments with virtual visits, there are not enough mental health professionals to meet the need.
Kia Carter, M.D., co-medical director of Psychiatry at Cook Children’s, has been a vocal advocate for increased mental health funding. Testifying in front of the Texas Senate’s Committee on Health and Human Services recently, she said early identification, intervention and treatment is essential to preventing further complications from mental illness. But there are roadblocks.
“We get insurances denying a specific level of care saying that a child doesn’t need an inpatient level of care. We also get a lot of pushback about medication,” Dr. Carter said.
She also asked lawmakers for increased support and to consider giving mental health care providers more leverage with insurance companies.
Hoping for JOY
In the meantime, Cook Children’s aims to bring awareness to the mental health crisis affecting children and teens with the launch of a new suicide prevention campaign.
The Joy Campaign is an acronym that stands for:
“If we can just get kids to slow down, realize that what they are experiencing is temporary and that they have a long life ahead of them, I think we can make an impact,” said Dr. Powderly.
For the next month, Cook Children’s will be releasing a series of articles on Checkup Newsroom weekly that address many of the issues at play, such as the pandemic, the role of over-the-counter medications, social media, as well as how minorities and LGBTQ+ young people are impacted. We’ll also be speaking with families who have lost a child to suicide to examine the effects on parents and siblings.
If you feel your child might be struggling, here are some of the warning signs to watch for:
- Declining grades
- Lack of concern about appearance and hygiene
- Changes in eating and/or sleep
- Self-injury such as cutting
- Less motivation
- Alcohol/drug use
- Acting highly anxious or agitated
- Giving away possessions
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, seek help early. Schedule an appointment with a licensed counselor. If your child is actively suicidal, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room.
About the Rees-Jones Behavioral Health Center
Our licensed experts provide psychology and psychiatry services for families whose children and adolescents, ages 2 to 18, are experiencing behavioral, neurodevelopmental and emotional challenges such as depression and anxiety to attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders.
Because we are part of the Cook Children's Health System, we are also uniquely positioned to care for those children coping with mental health as well as chronic physical conditions or diagnoses.
Depending on the severity of a child's condition, we provide inpatient and partial hospitalization programs on the main campus of Cook Children's Medical Center and outpatient services in eight clinic settings across Tarrant and Denton counties.
Our services include:
Diagnostic testing and evaluation
Outpatient therapy and counseling
Inpatient and partial hospitalization programs
Family support groups