State of Emergency Declared on Children's Mental Health
Three top pediatric health organizations have declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health, attributing it to the enormous toll the Covid-19 pandemic has taken on the nation’s youth and urging lawmakers to address the matter immediately.
On Oct. 19, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) released a joint statement calling for more federal funding, support and access to mental health services and programs, as well as advancing policies that ensure mental health parity laws.
“Young people have endured so much throughout this pandemic and while much of the attention is often placed on its physical health consequences, we cannot overlook the escalating mental health crisis facing our patients,” AAP President Lee Savio Beers, MD, FAAP, says in the statement, adding the “declaration is an urgent call to policymakers at all levels of government—we must treat this mental health crisis like the emergency it is.”
The pandemic has caused children and teens “to face physical isolation, ongoing uncertainty, fear and grief,” the statement reads, and has exacerbated an already steady rise in mental health issues among youth—such as suicidality, depression and anxiety—noted even before the pandemic hit.
Nationally, the percentage of emergency department visits for children ages 5-11 rose by 24% and by 31% for children ages 12-17 between March and October 2020, according to the statement. And among girls ages 12-17, there was a more than 50% increase in suicide attempt emergency department visits in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019, the statement read.
Also noted in the emergency declaration and based on research recently published in the AAP’s medical journal Pediatrics, more than 140,000 children have experienced the loss of a loved one, losing either a primary or secondary caregiver during the pandemic. Children of color have been disproportionately impacted, according to the research.
Reflecting the national trend, mental health experts at Cook Children’s Medical Center also have seen an increase in mental health issues among patients. From January through July 2021, for example, 261 patients were hospitalized for injuries following suicide attempts compared with 143 hospitalizations for the same injuries from January through July 2020.
“We absolutely are in a state of national emergency when it comes to children’s mental health. Suicide has been the second-leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24 years since 2018, which is pre-pandemic,” says Kristen Pyrc, M.D., medical director of Cook Children’s Psychiatry Outpatient Services and Partial Hospitalization Program.
“The inability of families to access quality mental health care in a timely manner has played a significant role in the deterioration of young peoples’ mental health,” she adds. “I have to wonder how many of those suicides could have been prevented if a young person could have started mental health treatment when their symptoms first emerged.”
The increase in suicide attempts and mental health issues among children led Cook Children’s to launch the Joy Campaign in April. The campaign spotlights efforts being made to address the trend.
In the joint statement, AAP, AACAP and CHA urged policymakers to take the following measures to address the crisis:
- Increasing federal funding to ensure all families have access to mental health services;
- Improving telemedicine access;
- Accelerating the integration of mental health care in primary care pediatrics;
- Supporting effective models of school-based mental health care;
- Strengthening efforts to reduce risk of suicide in children and adolescents;
- Addressing workforce challenges and shortages so children can access mental health services no matter where they live;
- Pursuing policies that ensure compliance with mental health parity laws.
Such legislation would improve access to children’s mental health care for families and communities, Dr. Pyrc says.
“I have attended conferences through CHA that address mental health in our hospitals. Across the country leaders of these hospitals all say the same thing: They are overwhelmed by the mental health needs of the kids in their community,” she says. “If every children’s hospital across the country is struggling to address the mental health needs of their community, it says to me large-scale structural changes need to be made through legislation to increase access to mental health care for all families.”
Dr. Pyrc says she’s overjoyed the AAP, AACAP and the CHA “came together to write a comprehensive statement with recommendations that would benefit children’s mental health.” The organizations comprise more than 77,000 physician members and more than 200 children’s hospitals in the United States.
She’s hopeful new legislation would allow hospitals across the country, including Cook Children’s, to provide more help to children in need, she says.
“I know how frustrating it is for families to try to get help for their child who is struggling with mental health challenges. It breaks my heart that we cannot help every kid who needs it,” she says. “Cook Children’s is actively working to improve access to care for families in our community, and I am hopeful that new legislation will give us the tools we need to adequately address the mental health crisis.”