The number of children and adolescents visiting the emergency department for attempted suicide and suicide ideation rose sharply during the pandemic.
Research published in The Lancet Psychiatry found that while pediatric emergency department visits decreased overall during the pandemic, suicide related visits among youth rose by 22%.
“In the summer of 2021, my research team led a study showing that depression and anxiety symptoms doubled in children during the first year of the pandemic. At that time, I cautioned that children’s mental health was at a crisis stage and that children needed urgent supports. Our new findings on a 22% increase in pediatric emergency department visits for suicide attempt during the pandemic demonstrating an even greater and more pressing need for additional children’s mental health supports,” Dr. Sheri Madigan, lead author of the study and a a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary told Theravive.
Madigan’s research is a meta-analysis of 42 studies analyzing more than 11 million pediatric emergency department visits. The studies span 18 countries and compare data from prior to the pandemic up until July 2021.
The 22% increase in emergency department visits mean than in an average emergency department before the pandemic 102 children and adolescents visited each month for suicide related reasons. This increased to 125 per month during the period of the pandemic studied.
The researchers also noted a difference in rates of increase between boys and girls.
“When we looked deeper into who was more likely to show increases in suicidal behaviour, we found that the rate of emergency department visits during the pandemic increased by 39 per cent for girls, and by six per cent for boys,” Madigan said.
Whilst suicide related visits increased, overall the number of pediatric visits to emergency departments decreased by 32% during the period studied.
Madigan says while this may seem confusing, it actually makes sense. She argues that fear of COVID-19 infection and other reasons discouraged people from visiting the emergency department for most health related matters during the pandemic.
At the same time, risk factors known to contribute to mental illness in children and adolescents increased.
This included increased screen time and decreased levels of physical activity, family stressors related to job losses, an increase in family violence and challenges related to mental health of parents.
She argues more children and teenagers are now in crisis than before the pandemic began.
“Our research allows us to say more conclusively that the frequent and prolonged exposure to pandemic stressors, such as repeated school closures, social distancing, online learning, combined with limited access to protective supports, such as extracurriculars, sports, community centres, school counsellors, have likely led to a mental health crisis, the likes of which children and teens have never experienced before,” she said.
Prior to the pandemic, Madigan notes that roughly one in five children around the world had some kind of mental illness. Of these, only 25% who were in serious need of treatment were able to receive it.
The pandemic caused mental health stressors to increase, but she argues the services and supports available to meet demand are insufficient.
“This crisis, and other crises that will follow, require immediate attention from governments and policymakers. The mental health needs of children and adolescents must be central in health care decision making. Mental health care needs to be accessible, convenient and cost effective. At the end of the day, mental health is health, and it is not something that can be ignored any longer.”