Pediatric Orgs Declare National Emergency in Mental Health

Marcia Frellick

October 21, 2021

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and Children's Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in children's mental health.

COVID-19 has taken a serious toll, the organizations say, on top of already mounting challenges. Policy changes are urgently needed, they say.

"Today's declaration is an urgent call to policymakers at all levels of government – we must treat this mental health crisis like the emergency it is," AAP President Lee Savio Beers, MD, said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 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 years. ED visits for suspected suicide attempts increased nearly 51% among girls ages 12-17 years of age in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.

Recent data in Pediatrics also show a marked increase in loss of a caregiver and sharp disparities by race and ethnicity.

"We found that from April 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021, over 140,000 children in the U.S. experienced the death of a parent or grandparent caregiver. The risk of such loss was 1.1 to 4.5 times higher among children of racial and ethnic minorities, compared to non-Hispanic White children," researchers wrote.

"We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, their communities, and all of our futures," said AACAP President Gabrielle A. Carlson, MD.

Among the actions the groups are calling for are the following:

  • Increase federal funding to ensure all families can access mental health services.

  • Improve access to telemedicine.

  • Accelerate integration of mental health care in pediatric primary care.

  • Fully fund community-based systems of care that connect families to evidence-based interventions.

  • Promote and pay for trauma-informed care services.

  • Address workforce challenges so that children can access mental health services wherever they live.

The organizations represent more than 77,000 physician members and more than 200 children's hospitals.

Jenna Triana, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, said in an interview that while specific institutions such as the University of Colorado have declared emergencies in pediatric mental health, declaring a national emergency is important.

She said the timing is important because fall is typically a heavy time for pediatric psychiatry with children and adolescents returning to school, and it is especially pronounced with the pandemic.

The usual diagnoses providers are seeing "are all worse," she said.

"The bar for getting admission to the hospital has been raised because we're such a limited resource. We've had to be so thoughtful about who truly, truly needs admission and who can come up with some kind of safe plan for outside of the hospital," Triana said.

"The patients I'm seeing in the hospital – the level of illness I'm seeing is much higher than it was a couple of years ago," she said.

Now, Triana said, patients who are depressed and suicidal are seeking help outside the hospital in day-treatment programs or intensive outpatient therapy.

At the hospital, she said, "our wait list is usually around 20 kids sitting in the ER waiting for a patient bed. Kids wait either in the ER or a medical bed sometimes a week or more waiting for inpatient psychiatry."

She said while she thinks all of the proposed recommendations are good, "I think what's difficult is the speed at which any of this can happen."

"We're in crisis now and we've been in crisis for months," she added.

She said the key will be using what's already in place – telehealth options to ease the burdens and training more primary care providers in mental health triage.

Joanna Quigley, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in an interview, "It's very powerful that these three groups came together and made a joint effort and statement to really highlight how serious this problem is across the country."

She said she sees all of the challenges the leaders of the organizations describe.

At Michigan, she said, as elsewhere, specialists are seeing a large increase in the number of children presenting to the children's psychiatric ED and the children's ED and increased demand for outpatient services.

Children in need are waiting "several months" to see either therapists or psychiatrists, she said.

Quigley said primary care offices are seeing more children and children with higher levels of anxiety and depression as well as self-harm and suicidal thoughts in the pandemic.

She noted that it's challenging to find providers who are accepting new patients and hard to find providers who take certain kinds of insurance, particularly Medicaid, she said.

Change will take strengthening all the areas of support the organizations' leaders are calling for, she said.

"School-based interventions are so vital, especially for these children who have been away from an in-person setting and were without services for the time that schools were shut down," she said.

Quigley and Triana report no relevant financial relationships.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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