We are all happy that with the arrival of three vaccines against COVID-19, the end of this long, stressful pandemic might finally be in sight. However, I read two articles recently that gave me pause. I wanted to share them with you .
The first, entitled Kids’ Mental Health is Still Pediatricians’ Greatest Concern, was in the Sunday, March 7, 2021 edition of the Augusta Chronicle. In it, Steven Shapiro, Chair, Department of Pediatrics, Abington Hospital, Philadelphia, PA, stated that “20% of calls are now to put kids on more medications for panic attacks and anxiety.” He was quite concerned that the uncertainty and anxiety spurred by the pandemic, coupled with a lack of social contact, may be having lasting effects on the mental health of children and teens. As we have all seen, children seem to be less likely to have serious physical illness from COVID-19, but the emotional toll of this ongoing pandemic may be affecting them more than we know. Vaccines are super and many of us have already had at least one dose, but they are not yet available for children. Moderna began testing its vaccine for young children just recently, so there is hope that this age group may soon be part of the more fully protected when a vaccine is deemed safe for them to take.
What kind of emotional affects does the pandemic have on kids? For one, they worry about somehow getting infected, then making their parents, grandparents, and teachers sick, according to Stephanie Ewing, Assistant Professor in Counseling and Family Treatment at Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions. Routine health appointments and follow up visits for well checks and vaccinations, among other things, fell drastically in the first few months after the pandemic was discovered and stay at home orders became more common. According to a November 2020 Blue Cross/Blue Shield report, vaccinations for measles and whooping cough fell 26% compared to the same time in 2019. On the positive side, there has been a decrease in the number of cases of strep throat, flu, and ear infections due to social distancing, says Jonathan Miller, a pediatrician at Nemours/Alfred duPont Hospital for Children. Dr. Miller also notes that children have been much more inactive, they have had an increase in screen time, and they have been home for a much longer period of time than pre-pandemic times. He wonders about the impact of these on overall wellbeing. There has been an increase in depression and anxiety symptoms in his practice as well, and he has shifted to a more proactive stance and an emphasis on preventative care when dealing with behavioral and mental health issues.
The second article, MUSC Doctor Says Pediatric Suicide , Suicide Attempts “unprecedented” Amid Pandemic, appeared in the Post and Courier on 2-19-21. It continued to look at the issues we’ve already outlined but went a step further to drill down on the issues of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and completed suicides. It also made this issue much more real for me, as these doctors live and work on the South Carolina coast in the Charleston area.
Dr. Elizabeth Mack, Chief of Pediatric Critical Care at MUSC, says that the number of these suicidal kids has reached a crisis in Charleston during the pandemic. What they are seeing inside the pediatric intensive care unit is much higher than normal and unprecedented. “We’re seeing a twin pandemic in many different ways. The isolation is really amplifying the inequities that have been laid bare for us.”
What are some of the factors that are contributing to the rise in pediatric suicide attempts and suicides? Isolation, grief secondary to the loss of loved ones, and financial insecurity are just three. Delayed return to school, which of course may be rectified in the coming months for many students, has lead to increased anxiety and depression. Schools are also safety nets for kids who don’t have enough food, who get most of their social needs met there, who have better access to physical and mental health care in school, and who sometimes are rescued from various kinds of abuse when a teacher or counselor sees warning signs and investigates further. Even when they are in school, some children worry about getting infected with COVID-19 themselves. Plexiglass barriers, mask wearing and social distancing also lead to odd emotional reactions in some children.
What can we all do to help?
Parents, teachers and counselors can be as open as possible with kids, including sharing some of their own healthy emotional responses to the pandemic and how they dealt with them. Focusing on the future can be very helpful. All of us can be vigilant, and if a child acts or sounds or interacts differently than usual, taking them to their pediatrician is a good first step. One more potentially lifesaving thing we can all pay attention to? Gun safety.
Dr. Annie Andrews, Director of Advocacy in the Department of Pediatrics at MUSC, noted that pre-COVID-19, thirteen million children lived in homes with firearms present, and four million of these in homes where the firearms were not secured. Children in homes with guns are three times more likely to die from suicide. Eighty per cent of children who attempt suicide with a gun will die. Only 2% of those who attempt to kill themselves by ingestion/overdose will die. Gun safety means unloading, locking up, and separating ammunition from firearms. As many as five children a week have been brought to MUSC with self-inflicted gunshot wounds, either accidental or intentional, and many of these kids die.
As Dr. Andrews and others in these articles said, these data are still anecdotal, but more data will be forthcoming as we go forward. As I started this column by saying, we are very happy that one pandemic seems to be heading towards its latter stages. Unfortunately for our children and teens, another pandemic may just be beginning, and we will be wise to watch for it and confront it wherever it arises.