Few can say they’ve not felt the impact of COVID-19 on their mental state. According to KFF, 54% of adults in the US surveyed say the pandemic has had a negative influence on their mental health. The impact on children may be even more significant. A recently study published by the National Institutes of Health reports, “Posttraumatic, anxiety, and depression disorders are expected during and aftermath of the pandemic. Some groups, like children, have more susceptibility to having long term consequences in mental health.” In fact, the number of ED visits by children for mental health-related issues between March and October, 2020, increased 24% over the same period in 2019. For preteens and teens the increase was more than 31%.
According to the CDC, youth have experienced a more significant emotional impact compared to other age groups. Sadly, one in four young adults has experienced suicidal thoughts since the start of the pandemic.
While adults can recognize the signs of mental illness and seek help, children often suffer in silence. Even if they know something’s wrong, they may be unable to articulate their feelings, let alone ask for help. And when children do show signs of mental stress like acting out or sleeplessness, it can often go unrecognized by the adults in their lives.
The instances of mental illness among children continues to skyrocket, driven by a myriad of stressors. These include isolation from family and friends, potential eviction and homelessness, increased emotional impact on parents, and the loss of support systems such as teachers and school counselors. It is critical that medical care providers take a more integrated role in the mental health of their adolescent patients to ensure they get the care they need throughout this pandemic and beyond.
Bringing hope and help through technology
Behavioral health and medical care have traditionally been offered as independent service lines. Yet, more progressive leaders in the field see it quite differently. Karin Price, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Section of Psychology at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, explains, “This pandemic has highlighted the tremendous stress children are under, as well as the need to incorporate behavioral health into our overall care process as quickly as possible.”
Early in the pandemic, Texas Children’s Hospital—the largest children’s hospital in the US—recognized that children being admitted for medical conditions were showing troubling rates of anxiety, depression, and trauma. The hospital immediately began working on a plan to implement a full-service line for pediatric anxiety. The goal was to be able to assess every child for behavioral health issues regardless of the reason for being seen. But the hospital wanted to do it in a way that did not over-burden their providers. They found the answer in technology that empowers a measurement-based care (MBC) program.
Texas Children’s Hospital chose to partner with Owl Insights, the leading provider of technology to support precision-guided behavioral health care. Owl Insights enabled the hospital to integrate MBC into its new behavioral health program, and to do it with minimal workflow disruption. The Owl, as it is affectionately termed, is a cloud-based MBC platform that has allowed Texas Children’s to leverage the benefits of its MBC program within the telehealth environment.
Owl’s seamless integration with the Texas Children’s EHR and automated MBC program has significantly reduced the burden on providers while supporting collection, analysis, and documentation of patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs). Texas Children’s now has the evidence-based insights needed to more effectively screen, triage, and monitor patient progress – essential elements to achieving quality and safety in behavioral health.
The Owl can be integrated into any pediatric care environment, including clinics, pediatric practices or hospitals. This enables clinicians to proactively identify potential BH issues in every child, regardless of the condition for which they are being seen or treated. Having this capability has the potential to transform the entire behavioral health care system for our country’s children.
The bottom line
As mass vaccinations are underway and the holidays behind us, experts predict we could begin to see some semblances of pre-pandemic normalcy by summer. But that doesn’t mean the mental health impact on children will wane along with the virus. Just the opposite is true. Studies show that toxic stress from adverse childhood events (ACEs) “can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.” In other words, the need for improved behavior health care for children will continue to grow in the months and years ahead. The time to act is now. We have at hand the technology to make long-needed, lasting improvements. Our children are counting on us.