JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a heavy toll on the mental health of children in Northeast Florida, according to behavioral health staff at Wolfson Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Terrie Andrews, system administrator for Baptist Behavioral Health and Wolfson Children’s Behavioral Health, says her department has seen a 300% increase in the amount of behavioral health emergency admissions, a 40% increase in calls to the office and a 20% increase in new outpatients.
In response to the massive spike, Wolfson Children’s Hospital opened a 24/7 helpline for kids and teens.
“It’s a confidential helpline that is staffed around-the-clock by trained mental health experts,” hospital spokesperson Alexis Kirkland said. “It provides emergency telephone support and assessment, crisis stabilization information and referral to follow-up care, if needed.”
The helpline is free of charge and available for parents, kids, and teens at (904) 202-7900
“We need to pay more attention to our mental health,” Andrews said. “Especially now, more than ever, as we’re going through a pandemic, which none of us in our lifetime have experienced.”
Earlier this month, a Florida grand jury, which was formed in wake of the 2018 deadly mass shooting in Parkland, released a scathing report in the state of Florida’s mental health system.
“This grand jury has received a great deal of evidence and testimony regarding financial deficiencies, conflicts between various agencies over information sharing and privacy, inadequate or inefficient provision of services and a number of other serious problems,” the report said. “To put it bluntly, our mental health care ‘system,’ - if one can even call it that - is a mess,...”
The report went on to make a grim prediction.
“We cannot overstate the importance of addressing these deficiencies,” the report said. “It is clear to us that inadequately addressed mental health issues have the peculiar potential to spiral out over time into criminal acts and violent behavior resulting in serious injury and loss of life.”
Melanie Brown-Woofter is the president and CEO of the Florida Behavioral Health Association and agreed with the grand jury’s conclusion that the state must make a more significant investment in its mental health services.
“It’s an investment over time,” Brown-Woofter said. “It’s not something that we may see in six months or a year, but we certainly would see it over generations, and then over several years. So, it’s a worthwhile investment.”
Brown-Woofter said a strong system of mental health care has a ripple effect across a society affecting even the economy, which has also suffered under COVID-19.
“There’s a huge benefit to society, including everything from the workforce to making healthier families, healthier communities,” she said. “We are increasing the number of people that can participate in our workforce and the quality of those individuals in the workforce.”
Andrews said maintaining mental health is a practice that should start early in life and that parents should form a habit of consistently checking in on their child.
“As a parent or a caretaker, ask open-ended questions,” Andrews advised. “Don’t ask simple yes or no questions, because you’re going to get a simple yes and no answer.”
Andrews suggested questions such as:
- “How are you feeling today?”
- “Tell me some things that happened today.”
- “Tell me what’s going on with some of your friends.”
Andrews said children may be disinclined to answer these types of questions and that’s OK. She said that parents simply being available and in close proximity can often serve the same purpose.
“Sometimes just sitting in silence can be the most therapeutic thing for someone,” Andrews said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are certain emotional and behavioral changes that can be warning signs of mental distress and depression:
- Feelings of sadness, which can include crying spells for no apparent reason
- Frustration or feelings of anger, even over small matters
- Feeling hopeless or empty
- Irritable or annoyed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
- Loss of interest in, or conflict with, family and friends
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Fixation on past failures or exaggerated self-blame or self-criticism
- Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure, and the need for excessive reassurance
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Ongoing sense that life and the future are grim and bleak
- Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
- Tiredness and loss of energy
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Changes in appetite — decreased appetite and weight loss, or increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Use of alcohol or drugs
- Agitation or restlessness — for example, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Frequent complaints of unexplained body aches and headaches, which may include frequent visits to the school nurse
- Social isolation
- Poor school performance or frequent absences from school
- Less attention to personal hygiene or appearance
- Angry outbursts, disruptive or risky behavior, or other acting-out behaviors
- Self-harm — for example, cutting, burning, or excessive piercing or tattooing
- Making a suicide plan or a suicide attempt
More information about the behavioral health services provided at Wolfson Children’s Hospital can be found at its website.