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Cleveland Doctors Concerned About Rising Children's Mental Health Issues

The anxiety and isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are having lasting effects on kids' mental health, Cleveland doctors say. [fizkes / Shutterstock]
The anxiety and isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are having lasting effects on kids' mental health, Cleveland doctors say. [fizkes / Shutterstock]

Hospitals in the Cleveland area are seeing an alarming increase in children and adolescents experiencing mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, according to officials.

Appointments and consultations are filling up, and hospital beds are reaching capacity, said Lisa Ramirez, pediatric psychologist and director of community and behavior health in MetroHealth's school health program.

“I do think it’s a crisis. We’ve known it’s coming for a while,” Ramirez said.

As expected, the isolation and anxiety brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are having lasting effects on children’s mental health, she said.

Now that kids may be socializing more with their peers and returning to normalcy, underlying issues such as anxiety are coming to light, she added.

“We’re seeing increased demand in all areas for all kinds of needs, but the severity and the complexity really feels different this year,” Ramirez said.

MetroHealth is seeing a sharp increase in children needing treatment for self-harm, such as cutting, as well as depression and suicidal thoughts, officials said.

“Psychiatric inpatient hospitalizations for teenagers is becoming more frequent now that beds are full across the city,” Ramirez said.

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s is experiencing a similar concerning trend, said Dr. David Miller, director of integrative medicine.

“Our providers here are busy. The wards are fairly full, and people are reaching their capacity,” Miller said. “Some of the inpatient services have been really maxed out recently, and so it’s definitely putting a stress on the system.”

Although the surge in kids needing mental health services may die down as COVID-19 health orders are being removed, the lifting of the restrictions seems to be causing anxiety as well, Miller added.

So-called “mask anxiety,” the reluctance some adults are feeling about not having to wear masks as often indoors, is being felt by kids as well, he said.

“I think there’s sort of a feeling of – ‘I know you’re telling me it’s okay, but is it really okay?’. That ambiguity is always really difficult for kids. It’s difficult for adults, but it’s certainly difficult for kids too,” Miller said.

Children are routine-driven and can struggle with sharp changes or uncertainty, which is why so many are reporting mental health concerns, he added.

“They’ve been pulled away, in many cases, from their support structures – their peer groups, their teachers, friend groups,” Miller said. “When that gets pulled away from them, they just don’t have the resiliency and the resources to compensate.”

Ramirez agrees and said MetroHealth staff may have to triage appointments and utilize more telehealth visits to keep up with the increasing demand.

The hospital system is also expanding to open a new behavioral health hospital in 2022, which will also help meet this new need, she said.

UH still has the capacity, although appointments are filling up fast, Miller said.

Miller and Ramirez encourage parents to have open conversations with their children about mental health and be on alert for feelings of hopelessness.

Research is needed to monitor children for long-term effects from the pandemic, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Miller added.

“None of us have really gone through an experience like this before, so how will that affect the generations of kids that went through this, and how will those differences be seen based on the age of this child when this happened?” he said.

Ramirez expects these mental health concerns to last at least for another year or two, even as the pandemic winds down.

If you or someone you know needs help call the  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline : 1-800-273-TALK.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.