Mental Health Crisis: Kids Cannot Just “Grow Out of It”

Content warning: suicide, disordered eating, substance use

Many are calling it a crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely worsened already-growing mental health concerns among children and young people. Isolation from friends and school communities, family financial strain, food insecurity, homelessness, and the deaths of loved ones from COVID have all fallen on children over the last year. Kids of all identities and backgrounds have been impacted, but it can be even more difficult for Black and Brown children who also experience the many manifestations of racism and are more likely to experience trauma.

But the mental health of children and young people is often misunderstood and overlooked. Stigma and misconceptions, such as the idea that they will “grow out of it,” reinforce cultural attitudes where their mental health is not taken seriously. On top of this, children face serious systemic barriers to care, including a severe shortage of pediatric mental health providers and lack of insurance coverage, which disproportionately impact children in communities of color, immigrant communities, and rural areas. In these communities, children often wait months to see a pediatric mental health specialist.

All children deserve to receive care that can help them live happy, healthy lives.

Dr. Seth Ammerman, founding medical director of the CHF-supported Stanford Teen Van,* and Dr. Cynthia Cross, medical director of our partner program in Memphis, Tennessee, spoke at a recent CHF National Network forum about the medical issues that have emerged from the mental health challenges children and young people have experienced over the last year.

More young people are considering suicide 

“Folks who are already stressed have borne an even greater burden with the pandemic. We’re seeing a lot more kids who have committed suicide or tried to commit suicide. We have had to hold these kids in an environment where they don’t get adequate psychiatric care…” – Dr. Cynthia Cross

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, for young girls aged 12-17, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts were 50.6% higher in February to March of 2021 than the previous year (before the pandemic began), and 3.7% higher for boys in this age group. Many of these children are from families that have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, a fact that links back to systemic inequities. Tragically, the rate of suicide among Black children under 13 is two times higher than that of white children.

If you or are loved one is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text TALK to 741741.

Many are struggling with disordered eating 

“I have seen a significant increase in patients with disordered eating, including diagnosis of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia…I’ve even seen patients with malnutrition.” – Dr. Seth Ammerman

Young people of all genders, races, and sexual orientations are particularly vulnerable to developing eating disorders and engage in disordered eating behaviors. Depression and anxiety, which increased for many during the pandemic, are often connected to disordered eating. Isolated at home, many children and adolescents have also been spending more time scrolling through social media: diet-culture content and images of peers and popular influencers can lead to self-comparison, worsen body image, and trigger these behaviors. While many families’ major concern over the past year has been lack of food, messaging about the “dangers” of COVID weight gain have been dominant. However, food insecurity itself can fuel food-related anxiety and disordered behaviors such as skipping meals and bingeing.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline at (800) 931-2237 or reach out through their online chat

More teens are turning to substances

“[There is] a vaping epidemic among teens and young adults…more and more of my patients have started vaping due to stress…I’m finding more adolescents who are using other drugs including opioids.” – Dr. Seth Ammerman

To cope with the many hardships of the pandemic, many adolescents have turned to nicotine, cannabis, alcohol, and other drugs. More teens have even started using substances by themselves, and rates of use are particularly high among LGBTQ+ youth. For growing brains, drug use can be dangerous, but Dr. Ammerman says many young people do not realize the potential addictions that can arise. When a young person begins using early in life, they face a higher risk for addiction and a higher likelihood of continuing into adulthood.

If you or a loved one are experiencing challenges with mental health or substance use, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

The pediatricians in our national network are first responders to the mental health needs of children, serving kids in communities most in need of accessible, high-quality care. Thanks to supporters like you, some of our partners have been able to expand and provide services in-house. During the pandemic, many, like our DC partner, have adopted innovative, community-based ways to care for the mental health of children and young people. Training youth in meditation, breathing exercises, body scanning/checking, and hosting support groups that help young people feel heard, affirmed, and valued are some of the ways our partners are responding to this growing crisis.

We need your continued support to help providers deepen these services and reduce barriers that keep children from receiving the healing care they deserve.

*Dr. Ammerman has retired from his role on the Stanford Teen Van but still serves patients at community health centers in the San Francisco Bay area of California.

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