“She was my happy kid,” a parent told me when I cared for her child who was experiencing a mental health crisis. My patient recovered medically within a few days, however, she remained in the hospital for over a week waiting for placement at a psychiatric rehabilitation facility. We must improve our mental health system and you can be a critical part of making that happen.

When children with mental health needs do not require medical treatment at a children’s hospital, they remain in limbo while awaiting placement at a mental health facility. Some hospitals are lucky to have specialized psychiatric units meant for acute stabilization of children with thoughts of suicide, self-harm, anxiety, panic attacks and depression. These units are meant for temporary placement; however, children often remain there for days to weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about new challenges for those of all ages. As a pediatrician, I am especially concerned about the developing pediatric behavioral health crisis. Over the past year, our state’s children have experienced new and unique challenges. They have faced school closings, disruption of routines, social isolation and have been a part of families who have faced job insecurity, food insecurity, lack of access to health care, and loss of loved ones. Kids are especially resilient, but this pandemic has been hard on many.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a report that revealed that emergency departments in 2020 saw the proportion of mental-health related visits increase 24% and 31% for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years respectively, compared to 2019.

It is clear that the number of children with emergent mental health needs has increased, and our current system is not equipped to handle this. Many children are no longer attending schools, which often provide mental health care, or have spent a significant portion of the school year at home. Additionally, we do not have enough mental health providers in the community to meet the needs of this growing demand. When children fail to connect with outpatient services, they resort to care in the emergency department which often leads to an expensive, multi-day to week-long stays due to lack of inpatient psychiatric facilities.

While vaccines have brought new hope that an end to the COVID-19 pandemic is near, the mental health needs of children will not disappear. Research completed on children impacted by Hurricane Katrina revealed that even four years after the initial event, mental health needs continued to be increased compared to baseline. COVID-19 has been a natural disaster and the current pediatric mental health crisis will not end unless we act to ensure lawmakers clear the way for improved treatments for children.

The mental health of our children needs urgent attention:

• We need more support for our children and families in crisis.
• We need additional funding for mental health services – both for inpatient facilities but also for community availability.
• We need more mental health providers and need to ensure that new methods of accessing mental health – like virtual appointments and school based mental health centers – are appropriately funded.
• We also need an expedited process to license more inpatient psychiatric rehabilitation beds.
• Finally, we need to ensure that mental health services are covered under insurance plans

Our lawmakers are positioned to act on all these initiatives. We must urge them to support bills and policies that will get our children the help they need. Please reach out to your state representative to encourage that they support mental health legislation to ensure a better future for our children.

Gabriella Izzo MD is a pediatrician in West Hartford.

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