Pediatricians and psychiatrists declare national emergency in youth mental health
By Isabella Grullón Paz
Leading medical groups have declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health triggered by prolonged isolation, uncertainty and grief during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a joint statement issued Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association said the coronavirus pandemic worsened an already existing mental health crisis among children and teens.
Inequities resulting from structural racism contributed to disproportionate effects of the pandemic on children from communities of color, the groups said.
The loss of a loved one has affected children and adolescents more than it has other age groups, research from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows. More than 140,000 children in the United States have lost at least one caregiver since the start of the pandemic, with youth of color disproportionately affected.
“This worsening crisis in child and adolescent mental health is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by COVID-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice, and represents an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020,” the statement said.
Before the pandemic, mental health concerns and suicide had been rising steadily among children and adolescents between 2010 and 2020. By 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 24.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between March and October 2020, emergency department visits for children with mental health emergencies rose by 24% for those ages 5 to 11 and 31% for children 12 to 17. Suspected suicide attempt visits to the ER among girls ages 12 to 17 in early 2021 were up more than 50% over the same period in 2019, according to the CDC.
“We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, their communities and all of our futures,” Dr. Gabrielle A. Carlson, president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said in a statement. “We cannot sit idly by.”
The organizations are urging policymakers to take actions such as increasing federal funding to ensure families have access to mental health services, supporting effective models of school-based care and accelerating the integration of mental health care into pediatric care.
Under the American Rescue Plan, $80 million was invested in the Pediatric Mental Health Care Access program to integrate behavioral health needs into pediatric primary care and $20 million was directed to supporting youth suicide prevention programs. The plan also contributed $50 million for community-based funding for local behavioral health needs worsened by the pandemic.
Finding a provider can be difficult. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported earlier this year that there was a severe shortage of child psychiatrists in nearly every state in the country.
Getting children urgent mental health care can be even more challenging, especially when emergency rooms are full. Earlier this year when hospitals were overwhelmed in Colorado and Connecticut, for example, children were sent out of state for care.