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Doctor groups warn of 'astronomical' rise of children seeking mental health help in emergency rooms

Photo by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Three large healthcare groups — the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Emergency Physicians, and the Emergency Nurses Association — issued a joint letter Wednesday warning of an ongoing and worsening crisis: children presenting in emergency rooms with mental health issues that hospitals are not equipped to handle.

According to the report, "Emergency department (ED) visits by children and youth with mental and behavioral health (MBH) emergencies in the United States have been increasing over the last decade. At the same time, there has been an increased prevalence of depression and suicide in pediatrics."

The report states that the problem is especially acute among black school-aged children, who have a suicide rate that is two times higher than white children.

Most troubling, the report notes that emergency rooms "have a wide variation in their capability to care for pediatric patients with MBH conditions," and that "There is often inconsistent screening for self-harm risks and substance use in patients presenting for both mental health concerns and other complaints."

Dr. Willough Jenkins, medical director of emergency and consultation psychitry at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, told NBC News that the number of kids seeking psychiatric emergency care in her ER has increased thirty-fold in recent years. "The volume is astronomical, and I don't know that people fully understand how many people are struggling," Jenkins said.

The policy statement issued by the healthcare groups called for a lengthy list of reforms and additional sources of funding, including drastic expansion of telehealth services for psychiatry, better communication among hospitals, and better training for hospital personnel on how to handle kids with mental and behavioral health issues.

Dr. Mohsen Saidinejad, professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NBC News, "The scope of this problem is really great, but our ability to solve it is not there."

Other studies, including a February study from the CDC, have also noted the skyrocketing rates of mental health issues among those under the age of 18 in America. Many studies have also noted that these trends increased sharply with the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, which are believed to have had a seriously deleterious effect on mental health overall.

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