Mental Health in America: 'The Kids Are Not Alright'

Megan Brooks

September 14, 2022

A new report shines a light on the toll the pandemic and other stressors have taken on the mental health of US children and adolescents over the last 6 years.

The report shows a dramatic increase in use of acute care services for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, especially among teens and preteens.

The reportThe Kids Are Not Alright: Pediatric Mental Health Care Utilization from 2016–2021 — is the work of researchers at the Clarify Health Institute, the research arm of Clarify Health.

The results are "deeply concerning" and should "spark a conversation" around the need to improve access, utilization, and quality of pediatric behavioral health services, Niall Brennan, chief analytics and privacy officer for the Clarify Health Institute, told Medscape Medical News.

"Startling" Trends

Leveraging an observational, national sample of insurance claims from more than 20 million children aged 1 to 19 years annually, the researchers observed several disturbing trends in mental health care.

From 2016 to 2021, inpatient (IP) admissions rose 61% (from 30 to 48 visits annually per 1000) and emergency department (ED) visits rose 20% (from 55 to 66 visits annually per 1000).

Mental health IP admissions ranged from a low of 27% in the West North Central region to a high of 137% in the Middle Atlantic region.

There were substantial increases from 2016 to 2021 in mental health IP admissions among children of all age groups, but particularly among adolescents 12 to 15 years old, increasing 84% among girls and 83% among boys in this age group.

There was also a sharp increase in mental health ED visits among girls and boys aged 12 to 15 years, increasing 20% overall during the study period. 

Mental health IP use grew faster from 2016 to 2021 among children with commercial insurance than among those with Medicaid (103% vs 40%).

In contrast, mental health–specific ED visits declined 10% among children with commercial insurance and increased by 20% among those with Medicaid.

ED utilization rates in 2021 were nearly twice as high in the Medicaid population compared with those for children with commercial insurance.

These are "startling" increases, Brennan told Medscape Medical News.

These trends "reinforce healthcare leaders' responsibility to address children's mental health, especially when considering that half of all mental health conditions onset during adolescence and carry into adulthood," Jean Drouin, MD, Clarify Health's chief executive office and cofounder, adds in a news release.

"With a growing consensus that mental, behavioral and physical health intersect, this research report aims to spark a conversation about the overall wellbeing of America's next generation," Drouin says.

Concern for the Future

Commenting on the new report for Medscape Medical News, Anish Dube, MD, chair of the American Psychiatric Association's (APA's) Council on Children, Adolescents, and their Families, said the findings are "concerning, though unsurprising."

"They confirm what those of us in clinical practice have experienced in the last several years. The need for mental health services continues to rise every year while access to adequate help remains lacking," Dube said.

"With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about the effects of climate change, global political uncertainty and a rapidly changing employment landscape, young people in particular are vulnerable to worries about their future and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness," he added.

Dube said there is no one right solution, and addressing this problem must consider individual and local factors.

However, some of the broader interventions needed to tackle the problem include increasing access to care by enforcing mental health parity and increasing the number of trained and qualified mental health professionals, such as child and adolescent psychiatrists, who can assess and treat these conditions in young people before they become major crises and lead to acute interventions like inpatient hospitalization.

"Public health interventions aimed at schools and families in raising awareness of mental health and well-being, and simple, cost-effective interventions to practice mental wellness will also help reduce the burden of mental illness in young people," Dube added.

"The APA continues to fight for mental health parity enforcement and for meaningful access to mental health care for children, adolescents and their families," Dube told Medscape Medical News.

The Kids Are Not Alright: Pediatric Mental Health Care Utilization from 2016–2021. Full text

This research was conducted by the Clarify Health Institute. Brennan and Dube report no relevant financial relationships.

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