Throughout the many phases of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a new and growing health care crisis. This is the impact of all this illness, death, change, loss and stress on the mental health of children as well as teens.
“We’ve heard of several waves of the pandemic, but there is going to be a tsunami of mental health and addiction concerns that follows this pandemic,” W. Carson Felkel, MD, FAPA, system medical director of Bon Secours Mercy Health’s behavioral health division, predicts.
Dr. Felkel shares that our health system’s emergency departments have seen a staggering increase in children and adolescents who have attempted or talked about suicide, who have injured themselves or who are grappling with anxiety, depression or other mental illnesses during the pandemic. Our health system is also seeing a dramatic increase in young patients who are seeking care in primary care, specialty care and affiliated school-based clinics for their mental health struggles.
“I expect this situation will get worse as the pandemic wanes, but the aftereffects will continue,” Dr. Felkel adds.
There are numerous reports and advisories from public health officials and other health care organizations that echo Dr. Felkel’s warning. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a “Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health,” which urges policymakers and child advocates to demand action. This ask includes an increase in federal funding for evidence-based mental health screening, diagnosis and treatment.
Additionally, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory that shares that in recent years, suicide rates among Black children younger than 13 have risen rapidly, making Black children nearly twice as likely to die by suicide as white children. It also notes that socioeconomically disadvantaged children and adolescents – such as those growing up in poverty – are two to three times more likely to develop mental health conditions than others.
As for the back and forth between remote and in-person learning, school closings caused distress for many students. However, reopening schools has caused anxiety for others, especially those who deal with bullying or social anxiety. This often presents as an upset stomach or headache.
“When children are able to avoid stressful situations, do not have the skills to cope and are not able to have the resource of therapy to process these difficult emotions, over time kids frequently get worse,” Dr. Felkel says.
At Bon Secours, we are proud to have greatly increased our use of telehealth for treating emotional, mental and addiction-related illnesses for patients of all ages. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Felkel says there were a few hundred virtual sessions. Since the pandemic, we have completed more than 70,000 virtual visits.
We are also building on our strategy of integrating all forms of treatment, including behavioral health care. The majority of our clinicians screen patients for behavioral health issues. As a health care system, we are focused on seeing that those who are identified with potential illnesses are treated or referred for mental health care.
“We are making this pivot to ensure that when a pediatric patient screens positive for depression or other mental health issues, we are also delivering the best evidence-based care to them through primary care,” Dr. Felkel shares.
Another step is that our facilities have added social workers to medical teams in areas like pediatric gastroenterology and neurology where children with chronic, reoccurring physical and emotional issues often are seen. These social workers can connect the patients and their families to behavioral health services.
“The pandemic has demonstrated that we are all humans, and humans have a breaking point,” Dr. Felkel says. “It is so important for us as adults to get the care we need, which will then in turn help our patients, colleagues and teen and children family members.”
Learn more about the behavioral and mental health services we offer at Bon Secours.