Peekaboo, the ER Sees You!

Peekaboo, I see you!

Any of you who have children have played this game over and over with your young ones. At a certain age, they love to pull a blanket over their heads, or better yet, to have you hide behind that same blanket, and then squeal with joy when you emerge. It’s always as if you went far, far away and then miraculously returned to be with them again, much to their delight. The repetitive interaction teaches your child that you are always there, that if you appear to be gone that you will return and that you are a constant in their lives. They learn that you are there for them, and that you will keep them safe.

In mental health, we try to see and evaluate children in many contexts. We see them for who they are in a family unit, in their school environment, with their friends and in other social settings. In pre-COVID-19 times, we might have seen a child in the office, with input by a therapist, nurse and child psychiatrist. We might have had a school based therapist see the child in his or her natural environment in the classroom, the lunchroom, or the playground. We most likely would have wanted to get collateral information from other family members, several teachers, court systems, pediatricians, probation officers, or anyone else who might know something about that particular child and their presenting problem.

Since the pandemic began and lockdowns of various types began to be commonplace last spring, a lot of this normal information gathering has been curtailed. Clinics are closed and onsite, face to face interaction with mental health professionals is severely curtailed. School based therapists have been deprived of their most fertile diagnostic and therapeutic ground, the school itself, because so many children have been placed in virtual learning environments, often from home. If mental health providers cannot see the kids, they cannot do an adequate assessment and provide timely treatment. The result is the very real possibility that more depression, academic failure, physical, mental, or sexual abuse or neglect may be happening but never seen. Where do children and their parents turn when care is needed, but normal avenues of assistance are cut off?

The CDC tells us in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) for the week of November 13, 2020, that emergency departments are often the first point of care for children’s mental health emergencies. As a community telepsychiatrist who has seen folks in the emergency rooms of South Carolina for the last ten years, I can attest to the truth of that statement. An interesting point here: during the first few months of the pandemic last spring, ER visits for all sorts of problems for adults and children actually went down, not up, at least at first. Why? Everyone was so afraid that they would contract COVID-19 at the ER that they stayed away, even if they had legitimate emergency health issues that needed to be attended to right away. Starting in April 2020, the CDC tells us, the proportion of children’s mental health related visits among all pediatric ER visits increased and remained high through October. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health related visits for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years increased 24% and 31%, respectively.

We know that the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative effect on the mental health of children. If other services as outlined above are not available, children end up in ERs. These resources are invaluable when the going gets tough and there is no other option, but by virtue of their very nature, rapid assessment and evaluation of the sickest among us and triage to admission or discharge to further outpatient assessment, it is impossible for ER staffs to do a really thorough assessment of a child with serious mental health needs, even with telemedicine and other services there to assist.

Monitoring indicators of children’s mental health, the CDC tells us, promoting coping and resilience, and expanding access to services to support children’s mental health are absolutely critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the launch of vaccinations and continued use of masks, handwashing and physical distancing, we will get through this pandemic and back to some semblance of normal. In the meantime, we must not let even one child who needs us slip through the cracks and suffer from mental illness that can be assessed, diagnosed and treated.

Peekaboo, we see you.