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Pediatric medical groups declare national emergency for children's mental health

Between March and October of last year, hospital ERs across the country started seeing a big spike in visits involving children with a mental health emergency.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — At West Lafayette Junior/Senior High School, Director of Counseling Libby Sheffield has never been busier. There's student advising and college applications. But lately, there's something much more pressing.

"Kids are walking through our doors sometimes on an hourly basis," Sheffield said. "A lot of it this year is just needing some of that emotional support to get through their day."

It's something school counselors, doctors and mental health advocates are seeing across the country, and they're raising the red flag.

"We're seeing this in our offices and in our hospitals. Just so many children and families who are really struggling," said Dr. Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Mental health experts have been calling this a crisis for several years, but they say the COVID-19 pandemic made it even worse.

Between March and October of last year, hospital ERs across the country started seeing a big spike in visits involving children — as young as 5 — with a mental health emergency.

Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis saw a 51% increase in the number of admissions for adolescent and pre-adolescent suicidal attempts.

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Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24 in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, declared a national emergency for children's mental health.

"Children have been facing isolation and disruptions in their education and ... in their daily routines," said Beers, who also said more than 140,000 children in the United States have lost a caregiver to COVID. "And so many of them are facing grief and loss, as well."

Mental health experts say one of the most glaring problems right now is a critical lack of resources for help.

"It's very hard for children and families to access mental health services when they needed them," Beers said. "And what we've seen over the course of the past year and a half with a pandemic, is that those concerns have gotten even worse."

Advocates say the nation needs more mental health providers in school, at the doctor's office, and in the community to prevent what can be a months-long wait just for an appointment.

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"There seems to be more awareness of it right now," Sheffield said. "And who wouldn't be grateful for that? But we need to do something. And I think that's the frustration. That's the point we're at right now."

While they wait for long-term solutions, Sheffield's school secured a grant to hire more help.

But she said everyone in the community plays a role — from parents to coaches to teachers.

"Give that student a chance to just talk," Sheffield said. "Because sometimes that's all they need is an adult to talk to who will not judge them, will not grade them, but who will be there and support them."