Melissa Velasquez Loaiza
(CNN) — There has been a steady rise in the number of children being seen in emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts, according to a new study, and the rise began even before the Covid-19 pandemic, which generated record demand. of psychological services for children.
The effects of the pandemic have drawn attention to suicide in adolescents and young children. In June, the Biden administration called the recent rise in rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among children an “unprecedented mental health crisis.”
The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, used data from hospitals in Illinois. The researchers looked at the number of children ages 5 to 19 who sought help for suicide from emergency departments between January 2016 and June 2021.
In that period, there were 81,051 youth emergency department visits that were coded for suicidal ideation. About a quarter of those visits turned into hospital stays.
The study found that emergency room visits with suicidal thoughts increased 59% from 2016/2017 to 2019/2021. There was a corresponding increase in cases where suicidal ideation was the primary diagnosis, from 34.6% to 44.3%.
Hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts increased 57% between fall 2019 and fall 2020.
“It really highlights how mental health concerns were really an issue before the pandemic. I mean, we saw this huge increase in views [a la sala de emergencias] for kids of all ages, honestly, in 2019, and it’s very concerning,” said study co-author Dr. Audrey Brewer, an attending physician in advanced general pediatrics and primary care at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “We saw more kids than we usually see that… we wouldn’t necessarily have thought they would have a problem with suicidal ideation. We saw 5-year-olds,” she said.
“Seeing them go to emergency departments for mental health or suicidal ideation visits is very concerning,” he added.
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Brewer thinks the true numbers are likely much higher than what the study found, because not all kids who struggle with suicidal thoughts go to the ER.
Experts say it’s not a problem unique to any one state.
Dr. Nicholas Holmes, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, said the increase in the number of children seeking help in his health care system has been “profound.”
“Over the last nine years, where we were seeing one to two patients a day who had a behavioral health crisis, now we’re seeing more than 20 a day,” said Holmes, who was not involved in the new research.
He said Rady, the largest pediatric hospital on the West Coast, is fortunate to have an inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric unit.
To help more of these children, the Holmes Hospital System is working with county health and human services to help create a pediatric-focused mental and behavioral health campus. It will also double the size of Rady’s inpatient behavioral health unit, as well as bolster services for children who need therapy but do not need to be hospitalized.
Other places in the United States are not so lucky. There is a national shortage of beds for children who need mental health help, research shows. A 2020 federal survey found that the number of residential treatment centers for children had fallen 30% since 2012.
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The care shortage has been accompanied by a significant increase in the prevalence of mental health problems that can lead to suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new study can’t pinpoint exactly why so many more young people are going to the hospital with suicidal thoughts, but Brewer thinks it may be a combination of factors.
Many of the children who were hospitalized with suicidal thoughts had other mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and substance use, he said.
Children are also responding to trauma in their lives and social influences on their health, such as poverty, historical trauma and marginalization, problems at school, online bullying and social media pressures, as well as lack of access to counseling and therapy.
Brewer said that adults can intervene when a child is contemplating suicide. She advises caregivers to be on the lookout for problems at school or among friends and to be on the lookout for a child who withdraws or shows signs of more anxiety or aggression than usual.
“They may misbehave or have trouble sleeping. Irritability and being more withdrawn and isolated are a lot of things that we often think about,” Brewer said.
It never hurts to seek the help of a pediatrician on how to help a child who is struggling.
“It’s important for parents to feel empowered to really sit down and listen to their kids and talk to them. Really try to relate and understand what’s going on with them and help foster positive relationships,” Brewer said.
He said he hopes mental health care will be less stigmatized and more available to children.
“We really need to develop more of a strategy to help support all kinds of different ways and really focus on some of those traumas and social influences on health,” Brewer said. “We need to make sure that more children have safe places to grow and thrive.”
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