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Rady Children’s Seeing 25% Increase In Mental Health ER Visits

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Above: "Emergency department check-in" sign posted outside of the Rady Children's Hospital emergency room in Birdland, June 8, 2021.

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Rady Children's officials are attributing the increase to the adverse affects of the pandemic, both directly and indirectly.

Aired: June 14, 2021 | Transcript

Recently, a Children's hospital in Colorado declared a state of emergency citing increasing numbers of youth suffering from mental illness which has led to suicidal thoughts and attempts. In San Diego, at Rady Children's Hospital officials are reporting seeing a 25% increase in mental health visits to their emergency room.

"Could be a variety of things, but to bring a child to the emergency room for mental health issues it’s something that’s pretty acute or pretty severe," said Dr. Willough Jenkins, a child psychiatrist and the inpatient medical director at Rady's. "So our most common reason is suicide whether thoughts of suicide or actual action."

Listen to this story by Matt Hoffman

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Jenkins said now, more than a year into the pandemic, there is also data that shows rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders are also increasing.

"Even before the pandemic mental health was in a crisis for youth — our numbers have been going up every single year so I don’t see this going down," she said.

Jenkins said early interventions are key for preventing worse outcomes — which for parents can be as simple as talking to kids — especially if parents notice changes in their behaviors lasting more than two weeks.

"And I know a lot of parents get kind of nervous or unsure about having that conversation," she said. "So I always tell families please, please ask. If you ask you’re not going to make that child think about it (suicide) more, it’s not going to cause them to act, if anything you’ll get more information and save their life — this is very, very serious."

Video by Roland Lizarondo

Rady's has a 24-bed inpatient mental health unit which has been full, and during the pandemic a new psychiatric emergency room, called the Copley Psychiatric Emergency Department was opened.

"One of a few nationwide," Jenkins said about the new facility. "It’s a specialized six-bed pediatric/psychiatric emergency room so staffed with a child psychiatrist, specialized nursing, social workers everything is geared to supporting the mental health of youth."

Rady's also has a walk-in behavioral health urgent care center in the mid-city area. Jenkins said there are a number of reasons for the increase in mental health visits.

"The fears of getting sick," she said. "At this point in the pandemic we’ve had children that have lost their parents to COVID-19 so there’s grief and there’s loss and then there’s indirect effects of the pandemic — so this is related to school closures being socially isolated from friends and piers."

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She added ongoing racial injustice and political tensions are also factors plus the stresses of parents who may have lost their jobs, but there are warning signs to watch for.

"If you’re seeing your child becoming more withdrawn, not hanging out with friends as much, not doing things they enjoy," Jenkins said. "If they are becoming more irritable — more angry — that’s a key sign of depression in youth."

To cope with some of that stress, Jenkins said some youth are turning to drugs or alcohol, but she adds the way the drugs are being used is changing.

"So traditionally teenagers are using it socially — they are going to parties — with the pandemic they are using substances alone and that’s more dangerous," she said.

Jenkins says one of the most common fears from parents is if they think there is something wrong and they alert doctors, their child will automatically be put on drugs — but most mild to moderate cases can be handled with therapy.

"Nothing is done without a full evaluation," Jenkins said. "Talking to the family and reviewing all the options."

RELATED: San Diego Initiative Looks To Improve Maternal And Infant Care For Black Families

In some cases teens do not need parental permission to speak with a specialist. San Diego County data shows in 2020 there was not an increase in youth suicides when compared with the previous few years.

According to a spokesperson from San Diego County's Public Safety Group, in 2016 there were 12 youth suicides, 10 in 2017, 14 in 2018, 9 in 2019 and 12 in 2020. The spokesperson added in 2021 so far 6 suicides among minors have been recorded.

Anyone in crisis can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit their website suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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Matt Hoffman
Health Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI am a general assignment reporter for KPBS. In addition to covering the latest news and issues that are relevant to the San Diego community, I like to dig deeper to find the voices and perspectives that other media often miss.

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