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Children’s Hospitals Grapple With Wave of Mental Illness

Krissy Williams, 15, had attempted suicide before, but never with pills.

The teen was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 9. People with this chronic mental health condition perceive reality differently and often experience hallucinations and delusions. She learned to manage these symptoms with a variety of services offered at home and at school.

But the pandemic upended those lifelines. She lost much of the support offered at school. She also lost regular contact with her peers. Her mother lost access to respite care — which allowed her to take a break.

On a Thursday in October, the isolation and sadness came to a head. As Krissy’s mother, Patricia Williams, called a mental crisis hotline for help, she said, Krissy stood on the deck of their Maryland home with a bottle of pain medication in one hand and water in the other.

Before Patricia could react, Krissy placed the pills in her mouth and swallowed.

Efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States have led to drastic changes in the way children and teens learn, play and socialize. Tens of millions of students are attending school through some form of distance learning. Many extracurricular activities have been canceled. Playgrounds, zoos and other recreational spaces have closed. Kids like Krissy have struggled to cope and the toll is becoming evident.

Government figures show the proportion of children who arrived in emergency departments with mental health issues increased 24% from mid-March through mid-October, compared with the same period in 2019. Among preteens and adolescents, it rose by 31%. Anecdotally, some hospitals said they are seeing more cases of severe depression and suicidal thoughts among children, particularly attempts to overdose.

The increased demand for intensive mental health care that has accompanied the pandemic has worsened issues that have long plagued the system. In some hospitals, the number of children unable to immediately get a bed in the psychiatric unit rose. Others reduced the number of beds or closed psychiatric units altogether to reduce the spread of covid-19.

“It’s only a matter of time before a tsunami sort of reaches the shore of our service system, and it’s going to be overwhelmed with the mental health needs of kids,” said Jason Williams, a psychologist and director of operations of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“I think we’re just starting to see the tip of the iceberg, to be honest with you.”

Before covid, more than 8 million kids between ages 3 and 17 were diagnosed with a mental or behavioral health condition, according to the most recent National Survey of Children’s Health. A separate survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 1 in 3 high school students in 2019 reported feeling persistently sad and hopeless — a 40% increase from 2009.

The coronavirus pandemic appears to be adding to these difficulties. A review of 80 studies found forced isolation and loneliness among children correlated with an increased risk of depression.

“We’re all social beings, but they’re [teenagers] at the point in their development where their peers are their reality,” said Terrie Andrews, a psychologist and administrator of behavioral health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Florida. “Their peers are their grounding mechanism.”

Children’s hospitals in New York, Colorado and Missouri all reported an uptick in the number of patients who thought about or attempted suicide. Clinicians also mentioned spikes in children with severe depression and those with autism who are acting out.

The number of overdose attempts among children has caught the attention of clinicians at two facilities. Andrews from Wolfson Children’s said the facility gives out lockboxes for weapons and medication to the public — including parents who come in after children attempted to take their life using medication.

Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., also has experienced an uptick, said Dr. Colby Tyson, associate director of inpatient psychiatry. She’s seen children’s mental health deteriorate due to a likely increase in family conflict — often a consequence of the chaos caused by the pandemic. Without school, connections with peers or employment, families don’t have the opportunity to spend time away from one another and regroup, which can add stress to an already tense situation.

“That break is gone,” she said.

The higher demand for child mental health services caused by the pandemic has made finding a bed at an inpatient unit more difficult.

Now, some hospitals report running at full capacity and having more children “boarding,” or sleeping in emergency departments before being admitted to the psychiatric unit. Among them is the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Williams said the inpatient unit has been full since March. Some children now wait nearly two days for a bed, up from the eight to 10 hours common before the pandemic.

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio is also running at full capacity, said clinicians, and had several days in which the unit was above capacity and placed kids instead in the emergency department waiting to be admitted. In Florida, Andrews said, up to 25 children have been held on surgical floors at Wolfson Children’s while waiting for a spot to open in the inpatient psychiatric unit. Their wait could last as long as five days, she said.

Multiple hospitals said the usual summer slump in child psychiatric admissions was missing last year. “We never saw that during the pandemic,” said Andrews. “We stayed completely busy the entire time.”

Some facilities have decided to reduce the number of beds available to maintain physical distancing, further constricting supply. Children’s National in D.C. cut five beds from its unit to maintain single occupancy in every room, said Dr. Adelaide Robb, division chief of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

The measures taken to curb the spread of covid have also affected the way hospitalized children receive mental health services. In addition to providers wearing protective equipment, some hospitals like Cincinnati Children’s rearranged furniture and placed cues on the floor as reminders to stay 6 feet apart. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pittsburgh and other facilities encourage children to keep their masks on by offering rewards like extra computer time. Patients at Children’s National now eat in their rooms, a change from when they ate together.

Despite the need for distance, social interaction still represents an important part of mental health care for children, clinicians said. Facilities have come up with various ways to do so safely, including creating smaller pods for group therapy. Kids at Cincinnati Children’s can play with toys, but only with ones that can be wiped clean afterward. No cards or board games, said Dr. Suzanne Sampang, clinical medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at the hospital.

“I think what’s different about psychiatric treatment is that, really, interaction is the treatment,” she said, “just as much as a medication.”

The added infection-control precautions pose challenges to forging therapeutic connections. Masks can complicate the ability to read a person’s face. Online meetings make it difficult to build trust between a patient and a therapist.

“There’s something about the real relationship in person that the best technology can’t give to you,” said Robb.

For now, Krissy is relying on virtual platforms to receive some of her mental health services. Despite being hospitalized and suffering brain damage due to the overdose, she is now at home and in good spirits. She enjoys geometry, dancing on TikTok and trying to beat her mother at Super Mario Bros. on the Wii. But being away from her friends, she said, has been a hard adjustment.

“When you’re used to something,” she said, “it’s not easy to change everything.”

If you have contemplated suicide or someone you know has talked about it, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or use the online Lifeline Crisis Chat, both available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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