A flood of severe mental health crises is overwhelming U.S. children, experts warn

A close up shot of a little boy at school who looks distant and upset.

Declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health

American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children's Hospital Association

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Overdoses and emotional difficulties. Crushing loneliness and stress. Grief and depression. The pandemic has accelerated mental health crises among children.

The problem has ballooned to emergency proportions because of a shortage of child psychiatrists, a growing wave of suicidality and the ongoing stress over covid-19, a group of experts say.

In a declaration of a national state of emergency in child mental health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association point to a litany of challenges faced by children in the United States.

Emergency department visits for mental health have increased dramatically, they say, and children and families face "enormous adversity and disruption."

And this month, UNICEF issued a report estimating that 13 percent of adolescents ages 10 to 19 live with a diagnosed mental disorder. The agency called for commitment and action from governments and societies around the world to protect child mental health.

The American groups provided a similar message, calling for more federal funding for children with mental health challenges, better school-based mental health care, and community-based support for kids and parents.

They point to structural racism as a particular challenge to youth mental health.

In 2020, mental health crises were particularly acute. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, they increased 24 percent for 5- to 11-year-olds and 31 percent for 12- to 17-year-olds. Suspected suicide attempts increased as much as 50 percent for teenage girls during February and March of this year compared to the same period in 2019. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents in the United States, and it has been rising for the past decade.

"We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities," the groups wrote. "We must identify strategies to meet these challenges."

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If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours and seven days a week.

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