BOSTON – State political leaders reflect on how to expand services to young people as medical experts warn of a “tsunami” of mental health issues in the wake of the pandemic.

While children have been spared the worst health effects of the COVID-19 outbreak over the past year, their mental health was a whole different story.

Closures, school closures and restrictions on social gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus, coupled with a lack of access to in-person services, have exacerbated a mental health treatment gap for children, experts say medical. Low-income and minority children have been disproportionately affected.

Schools have found themselves at the forefront of the problem, which has manifested itself in an increase in violence. In Lawrence, the high school reported several student brawls over the past week, which some officials have linked to anxiety and tension among students returning to classes in person.

“There is no doubt that we are facing a mental health crisis among young people,” said Dr Michael Yogman, pediatrician at Cambridge Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “The situation in Lawrence is not isolated – it is happening across the country. “

Yogman, who chairs a task force on youth mental health at the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said many people underestimated the emotional impact on students resulting from the transition to learning. in class.

“They have been locked up and isolated for a year and a half,” he said. “They lost their social and emotional skills.

Last week, a coalition of health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issued a stark warning that the youth mental health crisis has become a “national emergency. “.

“We are dealing with young people with increasing rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, their communities and our entire future,” the groups said in a statement. communicated. “We cannot stand idly by. “

The statement calls on state and federal leaders to fund and improve mental health care for children with more testing, diagnosis and treatment.

In Beacon Hill, policymakers are considering a number of legislative proposals to address the problem.

Governor Charlie Baker wants to divert some of the $ 5.4 billion in federal pandemic relief the state has received toward drug treatment and behavioral health services.

Baker said the state had dedicated “significant” funds and resources to communities like Lawrence to address children’s mental health issues, but said a major challenge for the state was the lack of counselors and other behavioral health workers.

“The biggest challenge we face in mental health services – and pediatric mental health services in particular – is a human capital issue,” he told reporters in a briefing last week. . “We are going to have to invest to develop this human capital.”

Senate Speaker Karen Spilka D-Ashland said the issue was high on her agenda and that she expects a “mental health reform bill” to come out. of the Senate before the end of the year.

Recent studies support claims that mental health problems are increasing in children even as the pandemic abates.

More than 20% of teenage hospitalizations between January 1 and March 31 were for psychiatric emergencies, not COVID-19, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2020, the percentage of emergency room visits for mental health emergencies increased by 24% for children aged 5 to 11 and by 31% for those aged 12 to 17, compared to 2019, according to federal data. .

Nationally, there were 50% more hospital visits linked to suicide attempts among girls aged 12 to 17 in early 2021 than in early 2019, the agency said. federal.

Meanwhile, a shortage of staff and beds in mental health units means that young people often end up “boarding” emergency rooms while awaiting services.

Recently, at least 172 pediatric patients were awaiting beds in psychiatric facilities in Massachusetts, according to state health data.

Danna Mauch, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, credits the state with taking a number of steps to help address staff and bed shortages by increasing reimbursement rates for providers, loan forgiveness and scholarship programs to expand the behavioral health workforce.

“But the only thing you can’t do instantly is create licensed staff,” she said. “Even with incentives, it still takes several years to train and license or certify a professional in the field.”

Mauch said addressing the issues underlying the crisis will require aggressive and prolonged investment from state and federal governments.

“It took us years to get there, and it will take time to fix it,” she said.

Lawmakers are considering a number of proposals to address shortages, low reimbursement rates and other mental health issues, which are moving slowly through the legislative process.

Representative Paul Tucker, D-Salem, a member of the Legislature’s Committee on Mental Health, Addiction and Recovery, said he was “shocked” by the difficulty in finding treatment beds for young people seeking psychiatric care .

He said lawmakers understand the urgency of expanding mental health services for young people.

“We have to do all we can or the situation will get worse,” he said.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for newspapers and the websites of the North of Boston Media Group. Email him at [email protected]

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