On May 25, Jena Hausmann, CEO of Children’s Hospital Colorado, Aurora, declared a state of emergency in youth mental health in response to an astronomical increase in pediatric mental health cases, including suicide, which has overwhelmed the institution.
From April 2019 to April 2021, the demand for pediatric behavioral health treatment at the hospital system increased by 90%. In Colorado, suicide is now the number one cause of death among youth and occurs in children as young as 10 years of age.
“Now we are seeing our pediatric emergency departments and our inpatient units overrun with kids attempting suicide and suffering from other forms of major mental health illness,” Dr. Hausmann said in a press release.
“We had to draw attention to what we’re seeing in our hospital and our community on an everyday basis – an unprecedented number of suicidal children who need acute treatment for behavioral health problems – and when I say ‘unprecedented,’ I’m serious – I’ve been in pediatrics for two decades and have never seen anything like this before,” David Brumbaugh, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist and chief medical officer for Children’s Colorado, told this news organization.
Christine Crawford, MD, associate medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stated in an interview that she “commends the CEO of the hospital for making this announcement, because it is outrageous to see what is happening with more and more children with significant psychiatric symptoms who are not getting adequate care.”
Jenna Glover, PhD, child psychologist and director of psychology training at Children’s Hospital, said that during the past decade, there has been a steady increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide among youth in Colorado. Suicide, she added, is now the number one cause of death in youth, “so we were already in a state of crisis.” She added that COVID-19 was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“In January to April of this year, behavioral health ED visits to Children’s Hospital were 72% higher than they were 2 years ago at this time,” she said. “Colorado Springs had a 145% increase for ED behavioral health visits during the first 4 months of 2021, compared to the first 4 months of 2020.”
Other problems that have been “skyrocketing” in youth are self-harm, substance use, and eating disorders. Younger children are experiencing an increase in behavioral problems, including developmental regression, such as tantrums, and problems with sleeping, toileting, and eating, Dr. Glover noted.
The youth mental health crisis has mushroomed, although social distancing requirements are now beginning to ease and we are in the “home stretch of the pandemic,” Dr. Brumbaugh said.
One possible reason “is that we took kids out of their normal routines, social circles, friendships, etc., for 12 months, and that was the limit of their physiological or mental resistance, and they got to the end of their rope,” he speculated.
Dr. Glover said, “Kids are burned out, and although they’re asking to return to their life, they don’t feel they have the resources. They feel so behind; they don’t know how to catch up.”
Dr. Brumbaugh said that there are not enough child psychiatrists to provide outpatient services or enough inpatient beds for children in crisis.
“This is an unacceptable situation. We would never allow a child with leukemia or appendicitis to go several weeks without treatment,” he said.
Community donors have come forward, enabling an anticipated 50% increase in Children’s Hospital’s mental health outpatient, inpatient, and day services by March 2022.
“On a hospital level, we are continuing to do things to expand access to care, like opening units that provide different levels of care for patients with psychiatric problems, as well as expanding into areas that are more rural,” Dr. Glover said.
However, the “blueprint is not in action yet, and a lot of money still needs to be allocated. A workforce has to be created, because there are not enough clinicians to fill these roles,” she added.