Increase in children going to emergency rooms with need for mental health services

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – There has been a steady increase in the number of children who are seen in emergency rooms for behavior health services, according to a study from the journal Pediatrics, and the increase started even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought record high demand for psychological services for children.

The pandemic’s effects drew renewed attention to suicide in teenagers and young children.

The Biden administration called the recent rise in rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among children an “unprecedented mental health crisis.”

“Being at home, not having a daily routine, not being able to play sports, participate in extra-curricular activities like band and chorus, and just be with their peers, which is so important during the adolescent growth period so that they can become very successful adults,” said Dr. Terrie Andrews of Wolfson Children’s Hospital.

Andrews says Jacksonville isn’t immune to the trend.

“There’s a couple different reasons we’re seeing this trend. One is more rooftops coming to the area. We haven’t really seen an increase in behavior health beds across our region,” Andrews said.

Wolfson Children’s Hospital says, in 2016, it treated 1,280 patients between the ages of 0 to 17 in inpatient, observation or in the emergency department. In 2021, that number was 1,562.

“The COVID-19 pandemic really played a toll on everyone’s lives — especially children and adolescents. There are many different factors that we hypothesize are some of the reasons. One is the lack of structure. As much as adolescents say they don’t want structure, everyone needs structure,” Andrews said.

What are the warning signs of a mental health crisis? Wolfson Children’s Hospital says withdrawn behavior, hopelessness, irritability and making statements like ‘I don’t want to be here anymore’ or ‘everyone would be better off without me’ are a few.

Wolfson Children’s Hospital says there are a few steps adolescents can take to prevent their mental health from worsening.

“The important thing to do is to make sure you’re talking with someone,” Andrews said. “Whether it’s the counselor at the school, oftentimes our schools now have licensed mental health therapists, school-based counselors, teachers, parents, friends, coaches are very important. "

Wolfson Children’s says another way to prevent a mental health crisis is pretty simple — family time. The hospital says it’s important to sit down and have dinner as a family or do outdoor activities together.

Wolfson also has resources available to parents and children to prevent a mental health crisis from occurring.

On Our Sleeves provides a wealth of free content available for download to help adults have conversations about mental health with children and teens and their lives. Additionally, parents and children can call the 24/7 Kids & Teens Helpline at 904-202-7900 or text LIFE to 741741 to connect immediately with a trained mental health professional for assessment, stabilization and referral to follow-up care, if needed. If a child is an immediate threat to themselves or others, call 911 or take him or her to the nearest Wolfson Children’s Emergency Center.

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or visit the hotline’s website.


About the Authors:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.