Pediatric suicide attempts, mental health cases rose 53% in 2021, Stanford Children's CEO says

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Paul King, president and CEO of Stanford Children's Health in Palo Alto, Calif., said being a kid during the COVID-19 pandemic has been pretty tough. 

"Childhood psychiatric conditions have doubled while the current situation is affecting all kids in many different ways," he told Becker's Jan. 12. 

Before the pandemic, one in five individuals under 18 experienced some form of a mental health condition on an annual basis, Mr. King said. Between 2007 and 2018, the suicide rate among 10- to 24 year-olds increased 60 percent, making it the second leading cause of death for that age group. From January through September 2021, children's hospital cases related to self injury, suicide ideation and attempts in kids ages 5 to 17 rose 53 percent from the same period in 2020. 

Marcy Doderer, CEO of Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock, told Becker's in September 2021 that mental health disorders accounted for 2.5 percent of the hospital's emergency department visits, a 150 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.

"Arkansas Children's is not directly in the business of psychiatric care. We don't own our own psychiatric hospital," she said. "Inpatient facilities are full and they're strapped for space and staff, and the length of time it takes to transfer a child to the appropriate inpatient setting is 50 to 75 percent longer now than it was 18 months ago."

Capacity issues, stigmas attached to mental health disorders and healthcare inequities are among the treatment barriers reported by children's hospital executives.  

In October 2021, the Children's Hospital Association — for which Mr. King serves as board chair — the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry declared the mental health crisis among children and adolescents a national emergency.

The CHA is now working with elected officials and sponsoring multiple Congressional bills, including the Children's Mental Health Infrastructure Act, which would provide grants to children's hospitals to improve capacity issues. A second bill, the Helping Kids Cope Act, would provide grants to support pediatric mental healthcare programs in communities.

"Some areas are quite robust in terms of the kinds of services they have," Mr. King said. "We think about our friends in the [Columbus, Ohio, area], where they have a number of resources that just don't exist in some of the other parts of the country." 

The Stanford Children's team is also innovating its approaches to diagnosing and treating mental health disorders among pediatric patients through data collection tools.

"We like to think about precision health and precision medicine in terms of, 'how do you customize care to the genetic-specific conditions of each child?' And then we use that to attack diseases that were previously incurable," Mr. King said. 

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Stanford leaders launched a committee focused on health equity issues and have since created the Office of Child Health Equity.

"The pediatric mental health crisis has been an issue for decades. I think the difference between now and [before the pandemic] is the heightened sense of awareness across all decision-makers and more of a willingness to intervene and do something that makes a difference," Mr. King said. "We're trying to leverage that opportunity because we understand this is a window in time that probably won't be here a year from now."

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