Mental health ER visits for children and teens drastically on the rise, study shows

BALTIMORE – Teen mental health is in crisis and the data is hard to ignore. …

BALTIMORE – Teen mental health is in crisis and the data is hard to ignore. 

Research from the Journal of The American Medical Association reveals a sharp increase in emergency room visits for children and teens rose from 4.8 to 7.5 million between 2011 and 2020.

Sharon Vandivere identified symptoms of mental health in her 14-year-old daughter which helped get her the help she needed.

“She engaged in risky behaviors, like lying down in the middle of the road, or holding a knife or putting a string around her neck and threatening to choke herself, or burning the ends of her long hair,” Vandivere said.

The complex mental health needs in the midst of a pandemic added to the support many families needed.

“We’ve been in the ER maybe about 14 times for evaluations and eight of those times she ended up going to a psychiatric inpatient placement right after that,” Vandivere said.

Dr. Rishi Gautam, from Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, said proper intervention has proven far too difficult with the overwhelming rate of young people visiting the ER.

“On average, we are seeing at any point at least 5 to 7 children waiting in an ER for a plan for either an inpatient hospital bed or an outpatient treatment setting a day,” Dr. Gautam said.

It’s a cyclical nightmare Vandivere has been dealing with for years and has cost nearly $20,000 in medical bills.

The Montgomery County mother said she has missed so much work and is even negative in vacation and sick leave, ultimately having to take Family Medical Leave to compensate for the time she would need away.

“The problem is you get out of the hospital and then the child is just at home or maybe goes to a day program and it’s not like the problems are solved,” Vandivere said.

Healthcare providers have been wrestling to come up with a lasting solution.

“ERs have become that space where families are metaphorically stuck in limbo and there is no clear answer as to what the next step should be,” Dr. Gautam said.

The question, of course, is what can be done to resolve this problem?

Dr. Gautam points to paying attention to the signs your child is displaying, increasing isolation and irritability, disengagement from family and friends and persistently low moods, plus changes in sleep and appetite or grades.

Dr. Gautam said the change has been slow to materialize for so many families.

“Our heart breaks when children need to come through the ER over and over again seeking the same things,” Dr. Gautam said.

There is a glimmer of good news.

Families trying to navigate mental health struggles should first go to the ER to begin the process of getting treatment. 

They can also call the National Suicide Hotline or call the 988-crisis hotline. Another resource is a behavioral health agency.