Fifteen months after the start of pandemic, children and adolescents suffer from depression and anxiety at such high rates that many Colorado children try to end their days every week. It is as unacceptable as it is heartbreaking.
For the first time in the 117-year history of our hospital, Colorado Children’s Hospital declared a state of emergency for pediatric mental health. We hope to rally our support for this mental health crisis, like we’ve never seen before. The tragic reality we face is that the main reason children come to our emergency departments is because they have thoughts of suicide. In fact, emergency department visits due to severe anxiety and depression, or feelings of isolation, disconnection and hopelessness, have increased by 72%. across the system compared to the same period in 2019.
In addition to increasing diagnoses of anxiety and depression and suicidal thoughts and attempts, we expect an increase in substance use and abuse, as well as the inability of students to make meaningful progress in education, which will have emotional and economic impacts to long term. Even the youngest children, including babies, experience the negative toll. We are seeing a decline in development in young children, such as more temper tantrums and problems sleeping, grooming and eating.
Although we have spent the last decade expanding our pediatric mental health services, it is not enough. We are short of beds for children seeking psychiatric help. To make matters worse, countless pediatric residential treatment facilities across the state have been forced to close due to a lack of funding.
It is nothing less than a tragedy that suicide has become the leading cause of death among Colorado children, starting at age 10. Worse yet, the problem is not unique to our condition. Before COVID-19, the national suicide rate among adolescents and young adults aged 10 to 24 increased by 57.4% from 2007 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A generation of children already struggling with feelings of hopelessness and isolation have now spent a year deprived of the resources and social interactions that served as their lifeline: school, school-related nutritional and social services, events sports and social with other children and extended family.
We also know that children from underserved minority communities were already more negatively affected by mental health problems and a lack of services, and they are the ones who suffer the most during the pandemic. Children who were already late are now so far behind that for many, catching up seems almost impossible. Children who already suffered from dysfunctional family dynamics were unable to take refuge in school or extracurricular activities. And as families have faced job losses, bereavement, increased drug addiction, and housing and food insecurity, their children have suffered as well.
It’s time to reverse this heartbreaking trend. Giving children what they need will require large-scale collective action. There must be staff and support for mental health in schools, which is essential to help young people thrive. Yet too often we have gaps in the supports, services and personnel available, and the pandemic has exacerbated this problem. We need to capitalize on everything from funding and sweeping changes to public policy to political advocacy and the daily conversations about mental health between children and the adults who love them.
The first step that states should take is to ensure that a significant portion of the funding for the US bailout is specifically allocated pediatric mental health. Too often our children are left behind when it comes to funding mental health. States should be required to allocate a certain percentage of money to children’s mental health – and they should face consequences if they don’t follow through. In Colorado, we are working with education and health partners to ensure that pediatric mental health receives an appropriate amount of the $ 3.9 billion our state expects to receive from the federal stimulus bill.
This funding should be used for a range of services: equipping schools with mental health experts and training teachers to recognize symptoms so they can refer children to appropriate services; additional hospital beds for children in crisis; the staff and training necessary to provide care and services to patients in these additional beds; and extended outpatient care and partial hospitalization (when children stay in hospital for intensive treatment during the day and return home at night). Partial hospitalization, for example, can avoid the need for full hospitalization and reduce the likelihood of re-hospitalization due to mental health issues.
Another key area of ââfocus and expansion is expected to be community emergency services. Evidence-based examples of community or home-based services include mobile units that visit the home of a child in crisis, spend several days connecting the child to appropriate treatment, and determining what services could benefit the whole family.
As community leaders, we need to see children not in isolation, but as members of families and communities who need much more support than they currently have. As we move to this larger vision, essential questions emerge: What enveloping services do we need to develop to reach out to the whole family and support collective well-being and mental health? As we expand services, how can we make sure all families feel safe seeking them? How are we creating new ways to help people in their quest for safe and healthy lives? These are the questions we must ask ourselves, for the answers will save countless lives and families.
Although a start, we need to do more than ask these tough questions. We need to act. As a mother of three, I strongly urge you to join me in making a difference now by doing these two things: Alert your community to this crisis and call on your elected representatives to demand additional funding for mental health services pediatric.
Most importantly, whether you are a parent or not, check with the young people you love. Ask them how they are doing and be prepared to actively listen. If you are concerned about his mental health or think he may be suicidal, ask him directly. Adults often fear that by asking children about suicide they will plant the idea of ââsuicide in their minds. On the contrary, asking directly creates a space of support and could save a life.
In the words of our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. David Brumbaugh, âWe are seeing children experience deteriorating mental health as we are all emerging from the trauma of this pandemic and moving onto more normal lives. Our children are running out of resilience, their reservoir is empty. âLet’s make sure they have what they need to fill it up again.
As we emerge from the ravages of COVID-19 and see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must not only focus on the physical well-being of our children, but on their mental health, which in too many cases, became fatal. . Our children deserve a future.