Children's mental health crisis a 'national emergency,' pediatric groups declare

There has been a "shocking" rise in urgent mental health help for kids.

October 19, 2021, 5:47 PM

Children's mental health challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic are a "national emergency," a group of pediatricians and other experts declared Tuesday as they called on policymakers to address the crisis.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association -- which collectively represent over 77,000 physicians and over 200 children's hospitals -- are sounding the alarm over a "shocking" rise in families seeking urgent mental health help for their children.

"Young people have endured so much throughout this pandemic and while much of the attention is often placed on its physical health consequences, we cannot overlook the escalating mental health crisis facing our patients," American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Lee Savio Beers said in a statement. "Today's declaration is an urgent call to policymakers at all levels of government -- we must treat this mental health crisis like the emergency it is."

A stuffed bear placed in window to give children a fun and safe activity during the COVID-19 lockdown, April 6, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

The medical associations pointed to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found between March and October 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits increased 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for children ages 12 to 17 when compared to 2019. There was also a 50.6% increase in suspected suicide attempt emergency department visits among girls ages 12 to 17 from Feb. 21 to March 20, 2021, compared to the same period in 2019, another CDC study found.

In the first six months of this year, children’s hospitals nationwide also reported a "shocking" 45% increase in the number of self-injury and suicide cases in 5- to 17-year-olds compared to the same period in 2019, according to Children’s Hospital Association President Amy Wimpey Knight.

"We are facing a significant national mental health crisis in our children and teens which requires urgent action," Wimpey Knight said in a statement.

A sign outside of Columbus Elementary School lets visitors know that the playground has been closed, Jan. 25, 2021, in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images, FILE

The medical associations are calling on policymakers to help address the crisis by "increasing federal funding to ensure all families can access mental health services" and supporting "effective models of school-based mental health care," among other measures.

The spotlight comes as the U.S. Department of Education released resources Tuesday to help schools support students' mental health, social and emotional needs through the $122 billion in pandemic relief funding made available to state and local education leaders.

"Amid the pandemic, we know that our students have experienced so much. We can't unlock students' potential unless we also address the needs they bring with them to the classroom each day," U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. "As educators, it's our responsibility to ensure that we are helping to provide students with a strong social and emotional foundation so that they also can excel academically."