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Pediatric ER visits for mental health conditions have risen during pandemic

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) - A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows children have been going to the emergency room for mental health conditions at a higher rate since the pandemic began, especially for girls.

The study has tracked ER visits from January 2019 to January 2020. It found a 50 percent increase in self harm injury visits, a 60 percent increase in mental health disorder visits, and a 70 percent increase in overdoses, all affecting kids 12 to 17.

Compared to 2019, weekly emergency department visits among girls aged 12–17 increased for eating and tic disorders during 2020, for depression, eating, tic, and obsessive-compulsive disorders during 2021, and for anxiety, trauma and stressor-related, eating, tic, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, and overall mental health condition visits during January 2022.

The proportion of emergency department visits related to eating disorders doubled among adolescent females and tripled for tic disorders during the pandemic.

Penrose-St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs says they've definitely noticed an increase in mental-health related emergency room visits.

"We've seen more visits for mental health issues like anxiety, trauma-related things, suicide, suicidal thoughts or even suicidal attempts," said Dr. Michael Roshon, Vice President of Research Operations for Centura, and an Emergency Physician at Penrose-St. Francis. "Also, firearm-related issues, and drug related issues -- even in the in the pediatric and adolescent population."

Eating disorders have grown in prevalence during this time period. It's a spike EDCare in Colorado Springs has seen first-hand.

"I would say that the first year of the pandemic, we saw about a 25 percent increase in inquiries, and then it doubled the following year," said Dr. Tamara Pryor, Senior Fellow and Director of Research at EDCare. "And I know if you look at the National Eating Disorder Association's helpline that they went, they tripled. They got over 60,000 inquiries in 2021 for their help line."

Both doctors say all of the emotions adults have felt over these last two years, have been just as bad or worse for kids.

"I really do think that loneliness, isolation, a loss of connection, those are really the enemies of mental health," said Dr. Pryor. "We very often talk about eating disorders being disorders of disconnect. A disconnect to self and others, and the pandemic just simply increased that tremendously. People being isolated at home, young people not being able to maintain their routines. Developmentally, it's so critical for young people, middle school and high school, to be developing skills with regards to interpersonal relationships.”

"If you're a parent, think about the stress that you felt, and the uncertainty, fear, and difficulty in navigating how we do this," said Dr. Roshon. "It's been hard for you, so think about how hard that would be for your 12-year-old or your 13-year-old when many times their main socialization and main exposure to their friends, which is so important at that age, was taken away through through school closings and all that. These children in that age group need a little bit of understanding."

During the beginning of the pandemic ER visits actually declined by over 50 percent, likely because people were afraid to go into a hospital for fear of catching the virus. Patients have returned since then, and Centura says they're back to near-normal numbers. They also encourage people to never put off emergency care.

"When you have a real problem that needs needs an extensive evaluation and needs something fast, the ER is safe," said Dr. Roshon. "We have all of the all the protocols to keep you from catching COVID. Look, I worked in the ER for the last two years, I took care of hundreds and hundreds of COVID patients, and I didn't catch COVID because we have really good protective equipment. We have really good protocols to keep patients, staff, family members safe."

The CDC study says the rise in mental health ER visits could represent an overall increase in distress among young females during the pandemic.

The CDC researchers also say early identification, expanded prevention, and intervention strategies are critical to improving pediatric mental health, especially among girls who might have an increased need.

In 2021, a national emergency for children’s mental health was declared by several pediatric health organizations, and the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory on mental health among kids. Children's Hospital Colorado has called for more than $100 million in funding to address the mental health crisis in children.

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