The youngest patient under Jackie’s care who had recently attempted suicide was 8 years old. She survived, but another child, also under 13, was not as fortunate, and became an organ donor. Jackie said that most of the children who come in after suicide attempts are girls who have overdosed on pain medication, like Tylenol. Some of them now face liver damage. Once, after a particularly difficult day at work, Jackie called her husband and asked him to lock up all the Tylenol and Motrin in their home.
“I don’t want to ever think we’re immune to these things,” she said.
‘We will see this crisis grow in the fall.’
Even before the pandemic, a mental health crisis was brewing among children struggling with bullying, abuse, eating disorders, racism or undiagnosed mental health conditions. But now, children are facing even more stressors, like the loss of a family member to Covid-19, adjusting to remote school or the anxiety of returning to in-person school.
“It’s almost like the pandemic threw gasoline on embers that were already glowing,” said Heather C. Huszti, chief psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange, Calif. “We’ve never seen it this bad.”
For young children, the pain can feel endless.
“It’s like, ‘This is my life now. Do I have anything to look forward to?’” Dr. Huszti said. “Because they just can’t think long term.”
CHOC, where Dr. Huszti works, has the only inpatient psychiatric center in Orange County that can take children under 12. In order to be admitted to one of the center’s 18 beds, a child must be a current or imminent threat to themselves or to others. When the center first opened in 2018, about 10 percent of the children were under the age of 12. In 2020, that number began to increase, and now has more than doubled, Dr. Huszti said.
“We have some days where every kid in the unit is under 12,” she said.
National data shows a similar pattern. In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study that compared how often children came to emergency rooms in the United States for mental health reasons versus other types of concerns. The agency found that between April and October of 2020, there was a 24 percent increase in the proportion of mental health emergency department visits for kids ages 5 to 11 compared with the same period in 2019.
The problem appears to be particularly dire among girls. During 2019 and 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits was higher for girls under 18 than it was for boys of the same age, the C.D.C. reported.