Child suicide attempts and mental illness increased 53 percent in 2021, says Stanford Children’s CEO

Paul King, CEO of Stanford Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, California, said it’s been pretty tough being a kid during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Childhood psychiatric illnesses have doubled, while the current situation affects all children in many different ways,” he said Beckers January 12.

Before the pandemic, one in five people under the age of 18 suffered from a mental illness annually, King said. Between 2007 and 2018, the suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds increased by 60 percent, making it the second leading cause of death for this age group. From January to September 2021, cases in children’s hospitals related to self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts in children aged 5 to 17 increased by 53 percent compared to the same period in 2020.

Marcy Doderer, CEO of Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, said Beckers as of September 2021, mental disorders accounted for 2.5 percent of the hospital’s emergency room visits, a 150 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.

“Arkansas Children’s is not directly involved in mental health care. We don’t have our own mental health facility,” she said. “Inpatient facilities are full and they are short of space and staff, and the time it takes to get a child to the appropriate inpatient facility is now 50 to 75 percent longer than it was 18 months ago.”

Capacity issues, stigma associated with mental health disorders, and health care inequities are among the barriers to treatment reported by children’s hospital executives.

In October 2021, the Children’s Hospital Association – for which Mr. King serves as chairman – will become the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explained the child and adolescent mental health crisis a national emergency.

The CHA now works with elected officials and sponsors several congressional legislation, including the Children’s Mental Health Infrastructure Act, which would provide grants to children’s hospitals to improve capacity issues. A second bill, the Helping Kids Cope Act, would provide grants to support community child mental health programs.

“Some areas are pretty resilient in terms of the types of services they have,” Mr. King said. “We think of our friends in the [Columbus, Ohio, area], where they have a range of resources that just don’t exist in some other parts of the country.”

The Stanford Children’s team is also innovating its approaches to diagnosing and treating mental health disorders in pediatric patients through data collection tools.

“We like to think of precision health and precision medicine in terms of ‘How do you customize care for each child’s genetic characteristics?’ And then we use that to attack diseases that were previously incurable,” Mr King said.

Following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, Stanford leaders created and have since created a committee to look at health justice issues Office for Children’s Health Equity.

“The pediatric mental health crisis has been an issue for decades. I think the difference between now and [before the pandemic] is the heightened awareness of all decision makers and more willingness to step in and do something that makes a difference,” Mr King said. “We’re trying to take advantage of this opportunity because we understand that this is a window of opportunity that probably won’t be here in a year.”

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