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Mental Health Emergency Declared for U.S. Children and Teens

Teenager looks despondently at phone, hand on face

American kids are in a mental health crisis and need much more help, according to a coalition of the nation’s child health providers.

“Across the country we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts,” the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) stated in a joint press release.

The pandemic made an already bad situation much worse.

“The stress for children and families, the stress of home school being on the screen, social isolation, all the things we know that affected young people impacted those who were struggling prior to the pandemic pretty significantly,” reports Tami Benton, M.D., Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Psychiatrist-in-Chief and soon to be president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).

Young people who were doing okay before the pandemic started to struggle more, she adds.

“People waited, you know, they waited to seek services until they absolutely couldn’t wait anymore.” 

Kids in the ER

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child visits to emergency departments for mental health reasons reached levels substantially higher beginning in late-March to October 2020 than those during the same period during 2019.”

Children between ages 12 and 17 visited the ER most frequently, followed by those between ages 5 and 11.

All ages of kids need more help, reports Mary Margaret Gleason, M.D., Vice Chair of the Department of Pediatrics for Pediatric Psychiatry at Eastern Virginia Medical School. “We have such unmet needs for young children.”

How government can help

The coalition wants all levels of government to step up child mental health treatment and services, including:

  • Funding for screening, diagnosis, and treatment, especially for under-resourced populations.
  • Access to telemedicine.
  • Better and more continuous funding for school-based mental health care.
  • Allocating more hospital beds and other resources for mental health emergencies.
  • Increasing the mental health workforce and improving mental health support for mental health workers.

Paid family leave is one of many family support policies that can reduce stress on families and help parents “to be emotionally available to their children,” adds Dr. Gleason.

According to The Seattle Times, tens of millions of workers don’t have jobs that provide family leave, especially women and those who are low-income.

Hopes for an expanded federal paid family medical leave policy were dashed when the proposal was dropped in last-minute negotiations over President Biden’s landmark spending bill of 2021. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has pledged to keep fighting “for the babies.”

Bills in Congress

Still, Dr. Benton is convinced “the Senate and the House are both united with us with strong bipartisan support for addressing children’s mental health.”

Two bills she finds particularly useful were introduced by Delaware House democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester in August 2021: 

The Children’s Mental Health Infrastructure Act would provide more pediatric care capacity for behavioral and mental health services, support costs of reallocating existing resources, and convert more general hospital beds into pediatric psychiatric beds.

The Helping Kids Cope Act would allow communities to be more flexible using resources to support mental health, including telehealth; train more providers to respond to crises; and provide more behavioral health, urgent care, and emergency department coverage.

Partnerships are crucial for helping kids climb out of their mental health predicament, Dr. Benton points out. “We partner with the schools, we partner with the recreation agencies, we partner with the churches, you know, wherever kids are, we need to be there supporting them.”

Screen media a contributor 

How young people engage with powerful technology such as smartphones and apps can affect their mental health. One example is how Facebook’s Instagram is designed. 

“Facebook‘s own internal research showed that about 1/3 of young girls who had concerns about their bodies reported feeling even worse after using Instagram,” says Nusheen Ameenuddin, MD, MPH, MPA, and chair of the AAP Council on Communications and Media. “This is manipulative, unfair and unethical.”

“In addition to educating families about healthy, pro-social media use, we at the American Academy of Pediatrics also believe that tech companies need to be held accountable for this type of targeting, advertising and data collection from children that can further reinforce negative feelings.”

As in-person learning resumes, here’s advice from mental health experts about how to support kids’ mental well-being, online and off.       

About the author: Jenifer Joy Madden is a Syracuse University adjunct professor of broadcast and digital journalism, certified digital wellness instructor, member of the National Association of Science Writers, and founder of DurableHuman.com. 

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