The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact child and adolescent mental health, and clinicians are learning as they go to develop strategies that address the challenges of providing both medical and mental health care to young patients, including those who test positive for COVID-19, according to Hani Talebi, PhD, director of pediatric psychology, and Jorge Ganem, MD, FAAP, director of pediatric hospital medicine, both of the University of Texas at Austin and Dell Children’s Medical Center.
In a presentation at the 2021 virtual Pediatric Hospital Medicine conference, Dr. Talebi and Dr. Ganem shared their experiences in identifying the impact of the pandemic on mental health services in a freestanding hospital, and synthesizing inpatient mental health care and medical care outside of a dedicated mental health unit.
Mental health is a significant pediatric issue; approximately one in five children have a diagnosable mental or behavioral health problem, but nearly two-thirds get little or no help, Dr. Talebi said. “COVID-19 has only exacerbated these mental health challenges,” he said.
He noted that beginning in April 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health-related emergency department visits increased and remained elevated through the spring, summer, and fall of 2020, as families fearful of COVID-19 avoided regular hospital visits.
Data suggest that up to 50% of all adolescent psychiatric crises that led to inpatient admissions were related in some way to COVID-19, Dr. Talebi said. In addition, “individuals with a recent diagnosis of a mental health disorder are at increased risk for COVID-19 infection,” and the risk is even higher among women and African Americans, he said.
The past year significantly impacted the mental wellbeing of parents and children, Dr. Talebi said. He cited a June 2020 study inin which 27% of parents reported worsening mental health for themselves, and 14% reported worsening behavioral health for their children. Ongoing issues including food insecurity, loss of regular child care, and an overall “very disorienting experience in the day-to-day” compromised the mental health of families, Dr. Talebi emphasized. Children isolated at home were not meeting developmental milestones that organically occur when socializing with peers, parents didn’t know how to handle some of their children’s issues without support from schools, and many people were struggling with other preexisting health conditions, he said.
This confluence of factors helped drive a surge in emergency department visits, meaning longer wait times and concerns about meeting urgent medical and mental health needs while maintaining safety, he added.
Parents and children waited longer to seek care, and community hospitals such as Dell Children’s Medical Center were faced with children in the emergency department with crisis-level mental health issues, along with children already waiting in the ED to address medical emergencies. All these patients had to be tested for COVID-19 and managed accordingly, Dr. Talebi noted.
Dr. Talebi emphasized the need for clinically robust care of the children who were in isolation for 10 days on the medical unit, waiting to test negative. New protocols were created for social workers to conduct daily safety checks, and to develop regular schedules for screening, “so they are having an experience on the medical floors similar to what they would have in a mental health unit,” he said.
Dr. Ganem reflected on the logistical challenges of managing mental health care while observing COVID-19 safety protocols. “COVID-19 added a new wrinkle of isolation,” he said. As institutional guidelines on testing and isolation evolved, negative COVID-19 tests were required for admission to the mental health units both in the hospital and throughout the region. Patients who tested positive had to be quarantined for 10 days, at which time they could be admitted to a mental health unit if necessary, he said.
Dr. Ganem shared details of some strategies adopted by Dell Children’s. He explained that the COVID-19 psychiatry patient workflow started with an ED evaluation, followed by medical clearance and consideration for admission.
“There was significant coordination between the social worker in the emergency department and the psychiatry social worker,” he said.
Key elements of the treatment plan for children with positive COVID-19 tests included an “interprofessional huddle” to coordinate the plan of care, goals for admission, and goals for safety, Dr. Ganem said.
Patients who required admission were expected to have an initial length of stay of 72 hours, and those who tested positive for COVID-19 were admitted to a medical unit with COVID-19 isolation, he said.
Once a patient is admitted, an RN activates a suicide prevention pathway, and an interprofessional team meets to determine what patients need for safe and effective discharge, said Dr. Ganem. He cited the SAFE-T protocol (Suicide Assessment Five-step Evaluation and Triage) as one of the tools used to determine safe discharge criteria. Considerations on the SAFE-T list include family support, an established outpatient therapist and psychiatrist, no suicide attempts prior to the current admission, or a low lethality attempt, and access to partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient programs.
Patients who could not be discharged because of suicidality or inadequate support or concerns about safety at home were considered for inpatient admission. Patients with COVID-19–positive tests who had continued need for inpatient mental health services could be transferred to an inpatient mental health unit after a 10-day quarantine.
Overall, “this has been a continuum of lessons learned, with some things we know now that we didn’t know in April or May of 2020,” Dr. Ganem said. Early in the pandemic, the focus was on minimizing risk, securing personal protective equipment, and determining who provided services in a patient’s room. “We developed new paradigms on the fly,” he said, including the use of virtual visits, which included securing and cleaning devices, as well as learning how to use them in this setting,” he said.
More recently, the emphasis has been on providing services to patients before they need to visit the hospital, rather than automatically admitting any patients with suicidal ideation and a positive COVID-19 test, Dr. Ganem said.
Dr. Talebi and Dr. Ganem had no financial conflicts to disclose. The conference was sponsored by the Society of Hospital Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Academic Pediatric Association.