Pediatricians see spike in mental health crisis calls during coronavirus pandemic

NEWTON, Mass. — A mental health crisis in kids that began before COVID-19 has only gotten worse during the pandemic.

Isolation, disruption to routine and fear of falling behind in school have led to depression, anxiety, attention deficit issues and suicidal thoughts, according to Dr. Lori Gara-Matthews of Pediatric Health Care at Newton-Wellesley.

“There was a preexisting mental health crisis before, and now I’m saying we’ve got another epidemic that’s been caused by the pandemic,” Gara-Matthews said. “It’s definitely been earlier and younger than we’ve ever seen before.”

Dr. Gara-Matthews, who specializes in developmental and behavioral pediatrics, told Boston 25 News she receives several calls for mental health crises each week.

“It’s quite concerning and so upsetting to see how my patients have been suffering,” Gara-Matthews said. “Even personally for me, I’ve had a couple serious overdoses, many trips to the emergency room for my patients. It’s really so sad.”

Kids of nearly all ages have been affected. Gara-Matthews said she has seen 18-month-olds experiencing anxiety with others because they have no memories with people outside the family.

But teens and only children seem to be most at risk. And finding counseling or in-patient mental health services can be extremely difficult.

“When I spoke to the emergency room physician [at Newton-Wellesley Hospital] the other day about an admission for something finally other than suicidal ideation, we spoke for ten minutes about how many kids are waiting in their hallways, which is not really best place for someone in a mental health crisis to be waiting,” Gara-Matthews said.

Child psychiatrists and psychologists are so overwhelmed by the number of mental health cases they are seeing that they are asking for Gara-Matthews’ help in continuing care for kids who are stable enough.

To help relieve kids’ anxiety about poor performance in the classroom, Gara-Matthews believes schools must reset their learning benchmarks, reteach what was missed in remote learning and be prepared to meet students’ mental health needs when they return to school.

To combat depression, she urges kids to practice healthy habits, including eating well, sleeping regular hours, getting outside, exercising, planning fun events and taking Vitamin D.

Gara-Matthews also advises parents to encourage their kids to talk openly about how the pandemic has affected them.

“Have parents keep their kids talking,” Gara-Matthews said. “And that can be hard. Sometimes maybe taking a walk or taking a ride where your child is kind of like a captive audience is best.”

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