Health professionals continue to draw attention to growing mental health crises in children

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The COVID-19 pandemic is causing more children to experience mental health crises that lead to emergency room visits in Wisconsin and other states, medical professionals say.

Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee established a grant-funded crisis response team in 2020. Allison McCool, director of social work at the hospital, said they initially expected to treat about 800 children a year . Instead, the team had seen around 1,400 last year.

“Everything was taken away from our children,” McCool said. “School has gone virtual, any kind of social activities or their typical coping activities have been really taken away. It’s like everyone has lost a few years of their life. And adults are sometimes much more resilient than our children who are still learning these coping skills.”

The trend is not limited to southeastern Wisconsin.

Mary Kay Battaglia is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She said there has been an increase in self-harm and suicide among Wisconsin teens.

“But we saw a significant increase in the number of women,” Battaglia said. “A 50% increase in suicide attempts and an increase in self-harm admissions to emergency rooms statewide.”

Battaglia said if Wisconsin had a more robust mental health workforce, many of those emergency crisis visits could have been avoided. She said shortages of psychiatrists and counselors are especially pronounced in rural and upstate areas.

In February, Governor Tony Evers signed a bipartisan bill allowing mental health workers from neighboring states to practice in Wisconsin.

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Battaglia said loan forgiveness programs for those entering medicine or mental health have also helped, but are only going so far.

“I think if we as a state were serious about bringing more people into the mental health world or even the health world, we would be looking at ways to reduce the cost of nursing schools and medicine, and psychology departments might have more scholarships available,” Battaglia said.

During a Mayo Clinic health system briefing on Wednesday, pediatrician Marcie Billings said their locations were already seeing an increase in the number of teens with mental health issues before the coronavirus pandemic. But she said the numbers had “exploded” in October.

“We see things like fatigue,” Billings said. “We see things like academic challenges, anxiety, depressed mood, trouble sleeping, eating problems. You know, only parents feel worried that their child isn’t participating or not being as socially engaged. That’s the hallmark of the pandemic.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also noted an increase in the number of children visiting the emergency room for mental health crises, which has school psychologists concerned.

Billings and McCool urge parents to regularly ask children about their mental health and not have expectations about how they should react. They said parents should also watch for warning signs, such as children becoming more isolated or losing interest in routine activities.

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Association of Children’s Hospitals declared a national state of emergency for children’s mental health. The groups called for increased federal funding aimed at increasing access to mental health screening and treatment, increased use of school-based mental health care, and child suicide prevention programs in schools.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “Hopeline” to 741741.

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