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Children's mental health declared national emergency

Rady Children's Hospital has seen a 25% increase in mental health visits to its emergency room since the pandemic began.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Pediatricians across the country are sounding the alarm about children's mental health.

In San Diego, Rady Children's Hospital is reporting a 25% increase in ER visits during the pandemic with kids suffering from depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association have declared it a national emergency.

"Even before the pandemic, children's mental health has been increasing at a very fast rate.  Adding in the layer of the pandemic for the last two years we've seen a dramatic increase in children's mental health,” said Dr. Willough Jenkins, the Inpatient Medical Director of Psychiatry at Rady Children's Hospital.

"When I started this work, we'd rarely see a child talking about suicide and now it's common place.  We frequently have children as young as eight in our emergency room talking about suicide," said Dr. Jenkins.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says compared to 2019, in 2020, ER visits for mental health rose by 24% for children between the ages of five and 11, and 31% for those 12 to 17.

Teenage girls are especially at risk with suspected suicide up 51% for those between 12 to 17.

"Among children under 18, mental health in California is now the leading cause of hospitalization,” said Tristan Stein, a project manager with the Little Hoover Commission.

The bi-partisan state oversite group released a study about Covid's impact on kids' mental health, saying while the state is investing more than four- billion dollars to address the problem, there needs to be better leadership and partnerships among schools, providers, and health plans to ensure kids needs are being met.

"California’s system of children's mental health is extremely fragmented. It's extremely decentralized. It's extremely complicated," said Stein.

Still, there is hope.

“Most childhood mental illness is treatable, and we have safe established treatments for mental health,” said Dr. Jenkins.

At Rady Children’s Hospital, there's a pediatric psychiatry emergency room and every child who comes into the hospital, no matter the reason, is provided with a depression screening.

In 2020, 3,000 kids admitted to Rady’s ER tested positive for suicidal thoughts.

Dr. Jenkins says parents can also contact their child's pediatrician, school counselor, or dial 2-1-1 for county provided services.

First and foremost, though, she advises parents talk to their kids.

“Don't be afraid to ask your child directly about suicide. Asking about suicide doesn't cause suicide. If anything, it saves lives," said Dr. Jenkins.

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