National emergency declared for children’s mental health

South Carolina News

(Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- The state of children’s mental health is at a crisis level, according to three national organizations.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have joined together to declare a national state of emergency for children and adolescents’ mental health and are calling for measures to ease the situation.

The declaration cites the COVID-19 pandemic as the catalyst for an increased presence of mental health issues in children and adolescents.

“As health professionals dedicated to the care of children and adolescents, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic,” the declaration reads.

Dr. Janice Key is a pediatrician at the Medical University of South Carolina who specializes in behavioral and academic difficulties in children and she said the stress placed on families because of the pandemic has certainly played a role in this mental health crisis.

“Many people lost their jobs, their housing changed, and many kids lost a family member who died from COVID, ” Dr. Key said. “So if the family is under stress that stress is visible in the children.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, between March and October 2020, emergency department visits for mental health emergencies rose by 24% for children ages 5-11 years and 31% for children ages 12-17. In early 2021, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12-17 increased by nearly 51% as compared to the same period in 2019.

Those are national metrics, but Dr. Key said the emergency department at MUSC’s Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital has seen a noticeable increase too.

“We now, many days, have more kids in our children’s hospital emergency department there for depression and suicide risk than we do regular emergencies like broken arms,” Dr. Key said.

The Declaration cites the need for easing measures including:

  • More funding for evidence-based screening, diagnosis, and treatment for mental health needs
  • Better access to telemedicine
  • Strengthen efforts for suicide prevention programs in schools, primary care offices, and other community settings
  • Implement new strategies to ease the strain on emergency departments
  • Full funding for programs that connect families to mental health help.
  • More people in the field of mental health care, including people from communities that are underrepresented.
  • New policies that make sure mental health parity laws are followed.

Dr. Key said they are signs parents and guardians should look for that may indicate a child needs professional help. For young children, preschool and elementary school-aged, the biggest sign is regression, including throw tantrums, according to Dr. Key. She added that the main indicator in teenagers and preteens is irritability, but that it can often be harder to tell with that age group.

“A lot of times people miss depression in teenagers because they think they’re just being a quarrelsome, bad teenager,” Dr. Key said. “If that kid is so irritable at home and at school, most of the time, most days of the week, and it’s lasted for 2 weeks or more, then you should be worried that he or she has depression and go get him evaluated by your healthcare provider.”

Dr. Key added that prevention is the best medicine and advocates consistent parenting and frequent, healthy mealtimes with your child.

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