Across the nation, in emergency rooms of clinics and hospitals, children are arriving with mental health crises in droves, researchers reported recently. The children represent all races and ethnic types and socioeconomic groups, but are particularly from minority and lower socioeconomic populations.
Anna Abrams and colleagues presented this research to a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. They looked at data from 45 children’s hospitals across the country from 2012 to 2016, with a focus on the disparity of mental health crises among children of different racial and ethnic groups.
“It’s really disheartening. Community resources for mental health, especially for youth, are incredibly scarce,” said Dr. Abrams, a pediatrician and researcher at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “It’s shocking, really.” She noted that from 2012 to 2016 “We saw about a 55 percent increase over the entire period in mental health presentations.”
Researchers then focused on three racial and ethnic groups. “Among white children, it was a similar number, about 48 percent,” Abrams said. “Then when we looked at non-Hispanic black population, the five year increase was 64 percent and among the Hispanic population, that five-year increase was 77 percent.”
In 2012, the researchers noted 50.4 emergency department visits per 100,000 visits by children for mental health-related concerns. By 2016, mental health was the cause for 78.5 emergency department visits per 100,000 children.The team found that the average age of children being brought in for acute mental health crises was 13.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a similar study, also found a rise in mental health disorders, especially in major depression, across the country. It found disorders among teenagers in particular. The CDC reported that one in five children ages 3 through 17 have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year. But only 20 percent of them get diagnosed or receive care.
Abrams attempted to understand why the spike is happening. “We can speculate, but we can’t say for sure what is happening,” she said. “In part, it could be due to the scarcity of mental health professionals who can help children. There’s also clearly a real increase in some mental health issues.”
My own take on this increase in children’s mental health issues might focus, for one thing, on how this increase parallels other problems in our culture, such as the mushrooming rate of mass shootings, which seem to come weekly these days; the rise in obesity among children; the opioid epidemic; the increase in sleep disorders; and a rising drop-out percentage in schools. During this same period, from 2012 to 2016, our political landscape became more divided and punctuated with constant strife and unrest.
All of these things together signal a growing turbulence in our culture that would affect children most of all, in and of themselves, but also affect their parents and the way they are raising their children. If you have the constant noise of a jackhammer outside your apartment window, it may make you snap at your children and become impatient with them. If you have the furious rumbling of a divided society outside your apartment window or rambling across your computer or smart phone screen, imagine how that might distract you from good parenting?
During times of distress, parents are less attentive to their children and are less able to tend to them to the degree they need it. During times of distress children are more needy than usual and parents are more distracted than usual. Many children at such times feel lost and lonely and sometimes angry, anxious or sad.
At the same time, as Abrams pointed out, there is a scarcity of mental health practitioners to attend to these children. Many children with mental health issues are never reported or diagnosed. The ones who do show up have to share the few mental health workers present and the time at hand.
Many articles about research on increases in mental health problems have come out in recent years, but it sometimes seems that nobody is listening. For who can listen amidst a violent protest, a stormy Supreme Court confirmation hearing, a mass shooting or while in a state of opioid numbness?
Apparently, very few.