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‘Unprecedented’ Increase In Children Hospitalized For Self-Harm, Pediatrician Says

Two Australians created Mental Health First Aid  in 2001. Since then, millions of people have taken classes in how to help someone in a mental health crisis.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Rachel Charney says more young people are being admitted to the hospital to be treated for self-harm.

The pandemic has affected the mental health of many, including children. The number of young people being treated for self-harm in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards is increasing, said a pediatric emergency medicine physician with SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital.

“What we’ve seen in the last few months with COVID has been somewhat unprecedented,” said Dr. Rachel Charney on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “What we’re seeing is a combination of more children presenting to the emergency department as well as more children needing in-patient psychiatric care … enough that we’re starting to have problems finding enough beds for kids.”

Charney said that kids rely on having fairly set social structures. Now many of those structures are gone.

“As a result — a combination between that and difficulty accessing care at this point due to COVID causing problems with outpatient visits — I think the combination has definitely led to that rise that we’re seeing,” she said.

Charney recommended that parents and caregivers keep an eye out for behavioral changes, including “moods that you don’t normally see, changes away from relationships and from activities that kids usually enjoy, changes in their weight and eating patterns, changes in their sleeping patterns, difficulty in memory thinking and concentration,” she said. “And then, a lot of times things will show in increases in risky behavior like drugs or alcohol use.”

Concerned caregivers should get in touch with a pediatrician and have regular conversations with the child about how they are feeling, making sure to ask open-ended questions.

“I think [for] a lot of us, when we tend to interview or try and ask more questions about how someone is doing, it’s really easy to not give that amount of space for that person to speak and to share,” Charney said. “Sometimes we’re tempted to just keep asking pointed, specific questions. And I think asking a question, and giving a child plenty of time to answer you back and just focusing on listening, is sometimes a good way of initiating a conversation with your child.”

Hear Charney speak with guest host Jeremy Goodwin on St. Louis on the Air:

If you are concerned about the mental well-being of a child, you can contact the 24/7 Youth Connection Helpline to gain access to crisis intervention, behavioral health and substance use assessment as well as emotional support referral information. Call 314-819-8802 or text BE HEARD to 23165.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.