Number of children presenting to A&E with mental health problems rose during pandemic – study

The number of children presenting to paediatric hospital emergency departments with mental health problems rose during the pandemic – with a spike in attendance before school reopening, a new study has revealed.

he study looked at school-aged children aged 5 to 15 who attended the emergency departments of Our Lady’s Hospital, Crumlin, Temple St Hospital and Tallaght Hospital in Dublin in the year to February 28 last.

Overall there was an increase of 8.9pc compared to the previous year.

While the numbers fell during the first four months of the pandemic, they increased by 52.4pc in July and August last year and by 45.6pc in September to December, according to the study led by Therese O Donnell of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in UCD.

The collective experience of coping with the challenges of the pandemic as a community and the opportunity to spend more quality time with family members may have had a positive impact for some young people, the research in the Irish Medical Journal said.

The break from school may also have provided respite for some children.

However, as restrictions were eased and the prevalence of Covid-19 remained low mental health presentations to emergency departments increased.with attendance each month from June to December above the prior year.

At the same time presentations for physical illnesses were lower.

“An Irish survey of young people conducted in late June and early July provides some insight on the mental health of adolescents.

“Mental health was identified by respondents as the most common negative effect of Covid-19 including overthinking, concern, worry, anxiety, depression and a sense of utter hopelessness.”

The authors said the spike in attendance prior to many schools reopening may be due to concerns held about the imminent return to school and school safety.

Weekly attendances rose in mid-October and fell during the mid-term break.

But as the schools reopened with cases rising and more restrictions, mental health presentations peaked.

November saw the highest monthly attendance on record with a 51.3pc increase compared to the previous year.

A UK survey of adolescents with pre-existing mental health problems indicated that many found the immediate return to school challenging due to the academic pressure and the need to make up for lost time, concerns about safety and social distancing measures and difficult relationships with peers.

Nonetheless attendance was above prior years in the weeks before and following school re-opening with a dramatic increase in November 2020, suggestive of the enduring stress associated with the pandemic leading to ongoing mental health problems.

The study also pointed to the disruption the pandemic caused the child and adolescent mental health service with many children and adolescents unable to access mental health supports.

The authors called for urgent resourcing of the child and adolescent mental health service and also said consideration be given to an out-of-hours service.

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