Surge in children accessing mental health services

Paul Hayes

3/11/2021 3:43:07 PM

New research has confirmed what many likely know: kids have struggled through pandemic-driven lockdowns.

Woman with young girl
The majority of children who sought mental health services were girls aged 12–17.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up any number of healthcare curveballs.
Doctors have been pushed to their limits, people have resisted vaccines, telehealth is now an invaluable part of healthcare delivery, and Australia’s rural GP workforce crisis has gotten worse.
Among the more interesting outcomes is that once lockdown measures were implemented in March 2020, there was a ‘noticeable drop’ in hospital admission and emergency attendance for chronic conditions, acute infections and injury.
That downward trend was juxtaposed, however, with a significant increase in children accessing mental health services.
According to new peer-reviewed research published in The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific, more children and adolescents used hospital mental health services in NSW following the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown than in the years prior to the pandemic.
The researchers found that children’s use of these services ‘rose sharply beyond pre-pandemic levels once lockdown ended’ and ‘not only did the number of children accessing mental health rise, but they stayed elevated for the remainder of the study period’.
‘When we compared the actual number of children and adolescents using hospital mental health services with the predicted number based on the pre-pandemic data, they were up by 30–55% from June 2020 to February 2021,’ lead study author Dr Nan Hu said.
‘This equates to a rise of an average of 110 mental-health-related inpatient admissions and ED attendances per month between June 2020 and February 2021 when compared to the predicted numbers using the data from the years 2016–19 in our study.’
The researchers found the majority of children who sought mental health services were female, aged 12–17, and came from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds.
Dr Hu believes lockdowns may have worsened existing concerns for many children.
‘The unintended consequence of the lockdown measures, such as social isolation and reduced access to school and community services, have potentially exacerbated the long-standing issues faced by the young people,’ he said.
‘The increase in mental-health-related service use should be understood in the context of a steady increase in mental health difficulties and related health service use among children and adolescents over the last decade in Australia.’
Recognising the issues faced by so many young people, the RACGP this year submitted recommendations to the National Mental Health Commission on GPs’ role in the mental health and wellbeing of children as part of a national draft strategy.
The Federal Government last week launched the world-first National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy (the strategy), providing the framework to ensure solid foundations are set during childhood.
As part of Australia’s long-term national health plan, the strategy is designed to implement a preventive, integrated, whole-of-community approach to maintain and support the mental health and wellbeing of children aged 0−12 and their families.
The strategy outlines the requirements for an effective system of care for children using four focus areas:

  • Family and community
  • Service system
  • Education settings
  • Evidence and evaluation
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