In Covid-Era New York, Suicidal Kids Spend Days Waiting for Hospital Beds

Issue Reports & Briefs

January 1, 2021

Even before the coronavirus arrived, New York State – like much of the country – had seen a long and steep increase in mental health emergencies among young people. From 2009 to 2017, reported suicide attempts by New York high school students climbed by close to a third. For several years,
suicide has been the second-leading cause of death among youth aged 15 to 19 across the state, and the third-leading cause among kids aged 9 to 14.
Then last March, young people saw their lives turned upside down. Millions were were cut off from friends, teachers, and routines. Within three months, more than 4,000 New York kids had lost a parent to Covid-19, while 325,000 were pushed up to or over the edge of poverty. Videos went viral of police killing unarmed Black citizens, while protests erupted on the streets and the president flirted openly with white supremacists.
For young people, the psychological fallout was significant and inevitable, says Dr. Wanda Fremont, the vice chair of child psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University, in Syracuse. “Kids with preexisting anxiety or depression, it’s getting worse. Then for other kids, the school variability and the family stressors, they’re taking a toll.”
At hospitals, the consequences became evident in phases. In the spring of 2020, when schools first shut down and life was, in some ways, frozen into place, emergency rooms were all but empty, according to psychiatrists who see kids around the state. In New York City and on Long Island, many hospitals converted kids’ psychiatric beds, or even their entire psychiatric units, to treat Covid-positive and quarantining patients.
But then in the summer and fall, as the pandemic ground on, kids’ mental health care providers saw a spike in demand at every level. Outpatient clinics filled up, holding most of their appointments by phone or video. Wait times for therapists – which can drag on for months under the best of circumstances – got even longer. Nationally, emergency room visits by kids in mental health crisis climbed steadily from June through October, even as visits for injuries and medical illnesses plummeted, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

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