Teens need our help coping with COVID
We need more pediatric mental health beds
BEING A TEENAGER has never been easy. These days, the challenge of developing and maintaining a healthy self-image is even more challenging in an era where life is dominated by devices and the constant need to keep up with the latest Instagrams, Snapchats, and TikToks.
And then along comes COVID-19.
Coronavirus has shattered everyone’s normal routines, but especially for those of children and adolescents. Going to school now happens in shifts or via multiple Zoom meetings. Parents, increasingly frazzled by the need to juggle their job and child care, are often working in the same room where their kids are learning. That is, if the parents still have jobs and have not been forced to find alternative ways to pay the bills and keep a roof over everyone’s heads while under- or unemployed.
Playdates? Sports? Team dinners? Plays? Birthday parties? Regular get-togethers with family and friends? That’s so 2019.
But here’s the rub. Our health care system has historically undervalued behavioral health issues. And the stress on the system has worsened as the pandemic has strained resources of all kinds to the breaking point. If hospitals are going to care for the community, they can’t just care for the profitable pieces of it. I’m proud that Emerson Hospital has maintained inpatient and outpatient mental health services even as other hospitals have cut back in these areas.
But an on-going problem afflicts Massachusetts – the lack of pediatric mental health beds. That means children and adolescents in acute need of psychiatric care are joining adults in being boarded in emergency departments, places that aren’t designed for extended stays. Often they are transferred to inpatient pediatric units, which are ill-suited to provide mental health care.
At Emerson, we see a wide range of mental and behavioral health issues, including depression, dissociation, violence towards others, and self-harm, up to and including suicide attempts. Some of these cases involve children as young as 6. A high percentage of children coming to our Emergency Department in need of acute mental health care are coming outside of our service area.
Successfully treating behavioral health issues is not as easy as sending someone home – especially if they are at risk of hurting themselves or others. As a result, hospitals are forced to keep patients in space that was not designed for or conducive to the patient’s or staff’s health and safety.
And that brings us back to COVID-19.
Public health officials suggest we avoid holiday parties and even consider not gathering with family for the holidays. It’s hard to gauge how much this will affect young people who are already missing important life events like birthdays, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, proms, and graduations.
What we can say with a fair degree of certainty is that the pandemic and its impact will have long-term mental health effects on both children and their parents. And we need to think hard about how we will help families cope with these life stresses.
Christine Schuster is president & CEO of Emerson Hospital in Concord.