After two suicidal crises during pandemic isolation, 16-year-old Zach Sampson feels stronger but worries his social skills have gone stale.
Amara Bhatia has overcome her pandemic depression but the teen feels worn down, in a state of “neutralness.’’ Virginia Shipp is adjusting but says returning to normal “is kind of un-normal for me.’’
After relentless months of social distancing, online schooling and other restrictions, many kids are feeling the pandemic’s toll or facing new challenges navigating reentry.
A surge in teen suicide attempts and other mental health crises prompted Children’s Hospital Colorado to declare a state of emergency in late May, when emergency department and hospital inpatient beds were overrun with suicidal kids and those struggling with other psychiatric problems. Typical emergency-department waiting times for psychiatric treatment doubled in May to about 20 hours, said Jason Williams, a pediatric psychologist at the hospital in Aurora.
Other children’s hospitals are facing similar challenges.
In typical times, the activities that come as the school year ends — finals, prom, graduations, summer job-seeking — can be stressful even for the most resilient kids. But after more than a year of dealing with pandemic restrictions, many are worn down and simply don’t “have enough in the tank of resilience’’ to handle stresses that previously would have been manageable, Williams said.
“When the pandemic first hit, we saw a rise in severe cases in crisis evaluation,’’ as kids struggled with “their whole world shutting down,’’ said Christine Certain, a mental health counselor who works with Orlando Health’s Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. ‘’Now, as we see the world opening back up, ... it’s asking these kids to make a huge shift again.’’
At some children’s hospitals, psychiatric cases have remained high throughout the pandemic; others have seen a more recent surge.
At Wolfson Children’ Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, behavioral unit admissions for kids in crisis aged 13 and younger have been soaring since 2020 and are on pace to reach 230 this year, more than four times higher than in 2019, said hospital psychologist Terrie Andrews. For older teens, admissions were up to five times higher than usual last year and remained elevated as of last month.
At Dayton Children’s Hospital in Ohio, admissions to the mental health unit increased by 30% from July 2020 through May, totaling almost 1,300. The hospital doubled the number of available beds to 24 and dropped the minimum age for treatment to 9 years from 12 years, said Dr. John Duby, a hospital vice president.
“The overwhelming demand for pediatric mental health services is putting an unprecedented strain on pediatric facilities, primary care, schools and community-based organizations that support kids’ well-being,” said Amy Knight, president of the Children’s Hospital Association.