An Alarming Children’s Mental Health Epidemic

Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and Kids’ Minds Matter began working to address an alarming children’s mental health epidemic in 2016. Recognizing a lack of resources, our goal was to reach the more than 46,000 Southwest Florida children suffering from mental health issues.

Progress has been made. We have collaborated with other mental health providers and created a strategic roadmap to caring for our community. Also, we have also increased our pediatric mental health team from 6 to 29 individuals. That helped increase pediatric mental health visits from 6,980 in 2017 to 14,661 in 2019. When we started, wait times for appointments with pediatric mental health specialists could be more than 12 months. In early 2020, we added enough staff and resources to significantly reduce wait times.

Impact of the Pandemic on the Children’s Mental Health Epidemic

The global pandemic impacted the stability of people, with lost jobs, isolation and change. The result has been additional mental health pressure on the area’s children and resources. While we have continued to grow our services, programs and support, the need continues to surpass available resources.

With awareness and by reducing the stigma associated with mental health, more families are calling us to help their children. As of December 2020, pediatric mental health visits surpassed 20,000. That’s more than 5,000 additional visits as compared to 2019, and still counting. Even so, wait times to see a pediatric mental health professional have increased to nearly a year for some specialties.

From Sept. 1 through mid-November 2020, Golisano Children’s Hospital saw 50 pediatric patients placed under Baker Act. That’s a 66% increase over the same time in 2019. Of those, 20 required admission to the hospital for medical treatment. Most of the admissions were high school girls ages 15 to 17. A Baker Act provides for temporary institutionalization of people showing mental illness. This includes strong potential for harm to self or others. The goal of the Baker Act is to stabilize patients so there is no longer a risk for harm. However, the Baker Act does not address the underlying symptoms. Patients are often returned to the community with little to no continuation of care.

Suicide and the Children’s Mental Health Epidemic

Before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revealed that almost one in five teens in the U.S. have considered suicide. Additionally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among high school-age youths after unintentional injuries.

Teenagers are at a stage of their development where they need regular contact with peers. They also need to develop close and ongoing relationships with adults outside the home like coaches, teachers and educators. These individuals serve as insulation to keep them engaged and healthy.

Because of the pandemic, many teenagers are missing friends and social lives. Also, many are suffering stressors including a parent losing a job, someone getting sick or an unstable home life. These factors can make them more vulnerable to mental health issues. In a June survey by the CDC, young adults reported increased anxiety and depression, substance abuse and elevated suicidal ideation. Additional forecasts of responses to the pandemic suggest we are heading into a period with spikes in suicidality These are difficult to estimate given the magnitude and duration of the pandemic.

In addition, from March to July 2020, gun sales doubled based on FBI data on background checks for gun purchases. As a result, some teenagers may have increased access to guns. The Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress correlates increases in gun ownership with teen suicide. For each 10% increase in household gun ownership, the suicide rate for 10- to 19-year-olds increases by more than 25%.

How to Help the Children’s Mental Health Epidemic

We are working closely with pediatricians and our schools in response to this recent increase in adolescent attempted suicides. In our effort to build area resources for pediatric mental health, we need the community’s continued support. We can’t do this alone.

Financial support, participation and advocacy will help Kids’ Minds Matter and Golisano Children’s Hospital fulfill a five-year strategic plan to expand the availability of pediatric mental health services in Southwest Florida for everyone who needs it.

Unmasking the Epidemic, a free virtual event, is planned for March 18 to provide resources for parents and children, share plans for expanding services and offer opportunities for community support.

About the Author

Man in suit and tie smiling

Jason Sabo specializes in child and adolescent psychology. As site supervisor at Lee Health’s Pediatric Behavioral Health Practice, he is part of Kids’ Minds Matter, Golisano Children’s Hospital’s philanthropy-supported effort to expand area pediatric mental health services.