Story at a glance

  • Emergency department visits are up in children and teens for mental health-related reasons.
  • A survey also suggests increased suicidal thoughts among young adults.
  • A mental health expert calls for inclusion of mental health on the coronavirus task force.

As the number of coronavirus cases continue to rise all across the U.S., so does a growing concern about mental health, especially that of children and adolescents. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that, compared to 2019, mental health-related emergency department visits during the period of Jan. 1 to Oct. 16, 2020, were up 24 percent in children ages 5 to 11 and up by 31 percent in 12 to 17 year olds.

A CDC report from August states that about 75 percent of 18 to 24 year olds reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom. Survey results from the agency published in June indicated increased suicidal ideation among young adults, with just above 25 percent of respondents saying they had thought about suicide in the previous 30 days.

There are local reports of increased suicide rates, even as early as from May. And in some areas, it’s affected the Black community especially. A global study published in the medical journal BMJ found that in some parts of the world, such as Japan, there was an initial decrease in the suicide rate followed by an increase in summer. This dynamic could be due to a “pulling together” phenomenon when the pandemic first began.

The CDC report included mental-health related emergency department visits, which is a standard way to study and measure mental health in the community. The study found that these visits rose sharply in mid-March and through early April, around the time that schools were closed for the first time in the U.S. and visits steadily increased through October. But besides the survey data and self-reports of mental health issues, it’s difficult to estimate the mental health burden that isn’t captured by hospital visits.


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A related issue is drug use and overdose. Fatal and nonfatal overdoses have increased during the pandemic by 20 percent compared to the same time period in 2019, according to a report from the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program. Young adults from the CDC survey were also asked about substance use, which about 13 percent of respondents replied as starting or increasing to cope with stress from the pandemic.

"The incidence of first-time users is also on the rise," says Harshal Kirane, medical director of Wellbridge Addiction Treatment and Research, to ABC News. "Isolation, economic pressure and family conflict during quarantine are all factors for this."

The people who are suffering are the families losing loved ones. “For the rest of our lives, we will blame ourselves for not protecting him,” says a parent, who lost a child to suicide during the pandemic, to The Washington Post.


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For mental health experts, they are seeing increases in demand for services. But more could be done to put a spotlight on the issue nationally.

“Why isn’t there a mental health leader on the coronavirus task force?” says Vaile Wright, clinical research director at the American Psychological Association, to the Post. “Our physical and mental health are completely intertwined, and we need to treat them that way.”

The authors of the BMJ study write, “It is still too early to say what the ultimate effect of the pandemic will be on suicide rates. Data so far provide some reassurance, but the overall picture is complex.”

Resources

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Hotline is 800-273-8255)

Mental Health Awareness month resources from American Hospital Association and Mental Health America

BIPOC mental health resources

Affordable therapy options at Open Path Collective with BIPOC therapists

Therapy for Black Girls on Instagram

Therapy for Black Men

Melanin & Mental Health

Ethel’s Club

Asian Mental Health Project

Native American focused One Sky Center

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University or the COVID Tracking Project.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.

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Published on Nov 24, 2020