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We can’t ignore the toll the pandemic has taken on the health of our kids

Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images
(Photo illustration) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said June 11 that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts by teenage girls rose significantly last year compared to 2019, highlighting the mental health impact of the pandemic. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s hospitals and health systems across the United States found themselves stretched thin. While the pandemic played a major part, we also saw a continuing crisis — a surge in emergency room visits of youth experiencing mental health emergencies, ranging from anxiety attacks to attempted suicides.

We cannot continue to ignore the youth mental health crisis. When President Biden addresses Congress in his State of the Union speech, he must call attention to the mental health state our youth continue to face and lay out a plan for his administration and Congress to take bipartisan action to strengthen pediatric mental health care across the entire continuum of care.

Biden should articulate the urgent need for additional federal investment in youth mental health care by investing in Medicaid, addressing inequities in pediatric health care, increasing funding for pediatric research, and alleviating staffing shortages that reduce the availability of care for kids seeking mental health support.

The call for federal action to protect the health and safety of our youth doesn’t end there. The administration and Congress must act, addressing staffing shortages, inequities in the pediatric health care system and funding for pediatric research.

For example, we need more workers throughout the health care system, but children’s health care needs are unique from adults, requiring the attention of pediatric physicians and specialists trained to care for them as they develop and mature. Many of these doctors are able to begin their careers thanks to funding through the Children’s Hospitals Graduate Medical Education (CHGME) program, which must be reauthorized by Congress this year.

In addition, there are significant challenges that impact outcomes in pediatric health and exacerbate health care disparities. Children living in households suffering from material hardships — such as food insecurity or difficulty paying for housing expenses—are more likely to miss or delay preventive health care visits. As a result, addressable health issues go untreated and worsen. These disparities have only continued to widen in the wake of the pandemic.

To address these disparities, Congress must pass legislation that would change eligibility requirements and increase reimbursement for Medicaid and other health care programs to be more inclusive.

Lawmakers must also fund pediatric research on a larger scale and prioritize research for underrepresented populations. Investing in research specifically geared toward children is a crucial component of efforts to expand and improve pediatric health care services.

The stark reality among these challenges, however, is that suicide is now the second leading cause of death nationally for youth between the ages of 10-14. This is the case in my home state of Washington for not only those ages 10-14 but for all children and adolescents ages 10-24, because mental health issues left untreated in youth continue into adulthood. These statistics represent children and youth who leave behind families devastated by loss and whose memories should be honored with a bipartisan call to action from the administration for increased pediatric mental health care funding.

Congress must pass legislation to make long overdue investments specifically in pediatric mental health care. These measures would help fund and build community-based services and infrastructure focused on prevention, early identification and treatment. Support is also needed to address the severe labor shortage in health care, which is felt most acutely by our mental health professionals, patients and families. The strength and volume of pediatric talent pipeline is directly impacted by decisions Congress makes to fund programs like CHGME and is designed to bolster the pediatric workforce, thereby providing better care for the nation’s youth.

While many would like to move beyond the pandemic, we simply can’t ignore the toll it is taking on the health of our country’s kids. Long wait times, bed shortages and overburdened physicians have created a cloud of uncertainty hanging over American families seeking care for their children. By taking swift action, Congress will make a direct impact on the lives of American youth today, protecting not only their future but that of the United States.

Dr. Jeff Sperring is chief executive officer of Seattle Children’s and also a pediatrician. He is the chair of the Children’s Hospital Association’s Board of Trustees.

Tags Biden Coronavirus COVID-19 emergency room Health care Hospital Mental health Pandemic Suicide prevention

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