For teenagers and young adults who are anxious by nature or feeling emotionally fragile, the pandemic and its social isolation have pushed them to the brink.
Rates of suicidal thinking and behavior are up 25 percent or more from similar periods in 2019, according to an analysis of surveys of young patients in emergency rooms.
For the young people coming undone, pandemic life presents unusual challenges, pediatricians say. Most are temperamentally sensitive and after months of being socially cut off from friends and activities, they have much less control over their moods.
“What parents and children are consistently reporting is an increase in all symptoms — a child who was a little anxious before the pandemic became very anxious over this past year,” said Dr. Adiaha I. A. Spinks-Franklin, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine. It is this prolonged stress, Dr. Spinks-Franklin said, that in time blunts the brain’s ability to manage emotions.
For teenagers in a mental health crisis, there aren’t many places to turn. They need help, but it is hard to come up with a psychiatric diagnosis. They are trying to manage a surprise interruption in their lives, a vague loss. And without a diagnosis, reimbursement for therapy is hard to come by. And that is assuming parents know what kind of help is appropriate, and where to find it.
When a crisis does hit, many of these teenagers end up in the local emergency department — the one place desperate families so often go to for help.
Many E.R. departments across the country are now seeing a surge in such cases. Through most of 2020, the proportion of pediatric emergency admissions for mental problems, like panic and anxiety, was up by 24 percent for young children and 31 percent for adolescents compared to the previous year, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The local emergency department is frequently unprepared for the added burden. Workers often are not specially trained to manage behavioral problems, and families don’t have many options for where to go next, leaving many of these pandemic-insecure adolescents in limbo at the E.R.
“This is a national crisis we’re facing,” Dr. Rebecca Baum, a developmental pediatrician in Asheville, N.C. “Kids are having to board in the E.R. for days on end, because there are no psychiatric beds available in their entire state, never mind the hospital. And of course, the child or adolescent is lying there and doesn’t understand what’s happening in the E.R., why they’re having to wait there or where they’re going.”