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More kids, teens, young adults visited ERs for mental health during pandemic

Visits to hospital ERs for mental health problems among younger people increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study has found. Photo by Wokandapix/Pixabay
Visits to hospital ERs for mental health problems among younger people increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study has found. Photo by Wokandapix/Pixabay

April 30 (UPI) -- Emergency room visits by younger people for mental health-related problems at one U.S. hospital increased by 50% in 2020, likely due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, a study published Friday by JAMA Network Open found.

More than half the children, teens and young adults who came to the the ER at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia seeking treatment for psychiatric health issues last year were admitted to the hospital for round-the-clock care, the data showed.

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Before the pandemic, 43% of ER patients with mental health disorders were admitted to the hospital, the researchers said.

The analysis, which examined ER visits at a children's hospital from the beginning of 2018 through the end of last year, did not specify the conditions for which patients were seeking care.

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"Children have faced unprecedented stressors due to the COVID-19 pandemic," study co-author Dr. Polina Krass told UPI in an email.

"Since the onset of COVID-19, our children's hospital has seen a larger proportion of emergency department visits for mental health conditions," said Krass, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Several studies have documented a rise in mental health disorders across all age groups since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

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Some of these conditions, such as depression and anxiety, have been attributed to financial hardships caused by business closures and isolation related to social distancing measures designed to limit the spread of the virus.

However, in some cases, psychiatric health problems have been linked with lingering effects of the virus itself.

A study published earlier this week, by JAMA Pediatrics, found that, since the start of the pandemic, one in four parents and caregivers have reported symptoms of anxiety in stress in their children.

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For this study, Krass and her colleagues reviewed data on all emergency room visits at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia between Jan. 1, 2018, and Jan. 1, 2020.

During the three-year period, there were more than 272,000 visits to the ER by patients ages 5 to 24 years, according to the researchers.

Of these, about 11,500 were for mental health conditions, the researchers said.

Since the start of the pandemic, about 6% of all visits to the hospital ER were for mental health conditions, compared to 4% in prior years.

Nearly 63% of ER patients with mental health conditions were female, and 78% were age 12 and older, according to the researchers.

Fifty-three percent of those visiting the ER for mental health conditions since March of last year were admitted to the hospital, with average lengths of stay more than three days longer than during pre-pandemic times, the researchers said.

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"For children who are at risk of hurting themselves or others, we recommend seeking emergency services, either at a [hospital] emergency department or through local mental health crisis services," Krass said.

However, "going forward, it is critical that we improve access to preventative mental healthcare for children to prevent mental health conditions from getting to the point where they become emergencies," she said.

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