Second Year of Pandemic Saw Spike in Child Mental Health Visits to ED

A surge in girls’ visits drove the trend, fueling longer waits for inpatient care

The silhouette of a young person in shorts and t-shirt covering their face as they sit in a dark tunnel.
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At a glance:

  • The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic brought an increase in ED visits for 5-to-17-year-olds with mental health problems, with a startling spike in visits by girls.
  • The number of youth ED visits requiring inpatient mental health care increased, and there was a dramatic increase in the share of ED patients who waited two or more days to receive inpatient mental health care.
  • The findings highlight a critical need for greater resources for youth mental health.

The number of young people in the United States visiting hospital emergency departments for mental health crises increased sharply during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study led by researchers from the Department of Health Care Policy in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School. The findings are published July 12 in JAMA Psychiatry.

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These results come amid growing national concern about a crisis in youth mental health and provide important new details about how young people with mental health problems such as self-harm and attempted suicide are using acute medical services.

The findings, the researchers said, highlight the critical need for policies to increase resources for mental health for all aspects of care, including emergency departments, inpatient pediatric mental health facilities, primary care, and prevention.

“The bottom line is that as a society, we need to do more to protect the mental health and well-being of our young people,” said Haiden Huskamp, Henry J. Kaiser Professor of Health Care Policy at HMS.

Ongoing youth mental health crisis

Numerous reports have noted that the stress and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated what U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has described as a crisis of adolescent mental health.

And the trend is not new, as numerous studies have shown. The suicide rate among young people increased by 57 percent in the decade before the pandemic, compared with the preceding decade. With increasing prevalence of mental illness among youth and a chronic lack of providers, the mental health care system has been stressed for a long time, the researchers said.