Disruptions to daily life during the pandemic, anxiety about contracting Covid-19 and social isolation are all taking a toll on children's mental health, a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests.
From the middle of March to October, the proportion of emergency room visits related to children's mental health rose dramatically for school-aged children and adolescents compared to the previous year, according to the CDC report.
The "findings provide initial insight into children’s mental health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and highlight the importance of continued monitoring of children’s mental health throughout the pandemic, ensuring access to care during public health crises, and improving healthy coping strategies and resiliency among children and families," the researchers wrote.
CDC investigators studied data from a national emergency room surveillance database from the start of January to Oct. 17, and then compared that information to data collected during the same period in 2019.
Losing milestones and rites of passage like graduations, birthday parties, athletic seasons are felt deeply.
From March to October, the proportion of emergency department visits related to mental health increased 24 percent for children aged 5-11 and spiked 31 percent among adolescents aged 12-17, compared to the same period the previous year.
Adolescents aged 12-17 made up the highest proportion of children's mental health-related emergency department visits in 2019 and 2020, the report found.
Dr. Candice Norcott, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Chicago, said that the "enduring uncertainty" of the pandemic represents a particular challenge for teenagers during a crucial stage in their development.
"They struggle with seeing down the road into a post-pandemic world and they are asking, 'What’s the point?' Teens also aren’t great with delayed gratification, so losing milestones and rites of passage like graduations, birthday parties, athletic seasons are felt deeply."
Investigators noted that their definition of mental health focused on symptoms and conditions — stress, anxiety — that might swell after a disaster in the U.S., and that it might not encompass all emergency department visits related to mental health.
"Still, these data likely underestimate the actual number of mental health–related health care visits because many mental health visits occur outside of EDs," or emergency departments, the report said.
"Children’s mental health during public health emergencies can have both short- and long-term consequences to their overall health and well-being," the report added.
The report said the increased proportion of children's mental health-related emergency department visits from March to October might be "inflated" because of the marked decrease in overall emergency department visits during the same period, as well as variation in the number of emergency departments reporting data to the national surveillance database.