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National pediatric groups declare children’s mental health emergency as services see more demand

The groups say the pandemic has elevated existing youth mental health concerns.
COMCARE Children's Services in Wichita, Kansas
COMCARE Children's Services in Wichita, Kansas(KWCH)
Published: Oct. 20, 2021 at 11:12 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Three leading pediatric healthcare groups seeking more federal action on children’s mental health.

Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health.

The groups said the concerns of youth mental health have exacerbated during the pandemic.

The declaration said the impact has been disproportionally felt by children of color. They added part of the reason for this is the trauma children feel for the loss of a loved one, especially their parent or guardian, something that again, impacts children of color disproportionally.

“Need was already exploding, and then the pandemic happened, and it just really was exponential,” said Dr. Susan Bray, an Associate Professor of Counseling at Wichita State University.

Children and teens are experiencing a mental impact.

Dr. Bray said, “Avoid other people, and we haven’t had our social needs met, and that’s just created a perfect storm for mental health issues, especially in children and adolescents that are much more vulnerable.”

Services providers see that.

“We’ve seen a lot more depression, a lot more anxiety and unfortunately a lot more suicide attempts or thoughts of suicide,” said COMCARE Director of Rehab Services Shantel Westbrook, LMLP/ LCP.

Westbrook at COMCARE said the impact has also been felt in hospitals.

During Wednesday’s Kansas Governor’s Safer Classrooms Workgroup, they discussed the mental health impact on youths.

During the meeting, a pediatrician at Wesley discussed the high number they saw this weekend in the hospital for mental health emergencies, a number that’s been steadily climbing during the pandemic.

Pediatrician Dr. Stephanie Kulhmann said, “Came to the hospital Monday to work, we were holding ten adolescent patients that needed placements after intentional harm and suicidality that came in over the weekend.”

The CDC collected data and reported last year, between March and October, emergency department visits for mental health emergencies increased about 25 percent for kids 5-11 and 31 percent in teens 12-17.

They also discussed the federal COVID-19 relief funding schools are receiving, and many districts are allocating those funds to address students’ mental health needs.

This summer, Wichita State opened the W.I.S.E. Clinic in response to the need for mental health services in Wichita and provide the counseling free to those seeking care. This includes adult and adolescent services. They also have play therapy for kids.

Dr. Susan Bray at Wichita State said it’s important for parents to talk with their children about taking care of their overall health, mentally and physically, and to speak out if they notice anything of concern.

“Everybody needs a little extra help now and then, and it’s okay to ask for help,” said Dr. Bray.

She added, “Showing other signs of just stress, share your observations with them and ask them do they feel like maybe they need some extra help.”

Westbrook said having a conversation about mental health remains one of the most important first steps.

“The first thing is really not being afraid to talk about it, to ask. How are you doing, what do you need, how can I help,” said Westbrook.

There are some signs Westbrook pointed to that could indicate something that could need more attention.

Westbrook said, “Grades are significantly slipping, sleeping too little or too much. Friends have changed, not interested in activities.”

Providers said something making a significant difference is the growing awareness about mental health.

Westbrook said, “People are talking about it more; there’s a lot more conversations. Stigma is being reduced greatly.”

“The generation that is coming up today is much more likely to seek out mental health services,” said Dr. Bray.

The declaration included several recommendations, including increased federal youth mental health funding, more support for school-based mental health programs and integrating mental health care as part of pediatric primary care.

In Kansas, a partnership between KU School of Medicine-Wichita and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment with the KSKidsMAP program is trying to fill that need for pediatricians. It allows primary care physicians and clinicians to get access to mental health services through telemedicine.

The pediatric mental health team can provide recommendations and resources. This service is designed to help meet needs in predominantly rural parts of the state with no easily accessible mental health provider.

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