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This blog is part of an ongoing series on teen mental health during the pandemic, which features perspectives from leaders at BayCare Health System, the Hillsborough County School District, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and others.

Since the start of the pandemic, teens throughout the nation have been seeking mental health treatment at record levels. The influx has caused a spike in emergency room visits for mental health issues for the teen demographic. These trends are evident in the Tampa Bay area, according to Gail Ryder, Vice President for Behavioral Health Services at BayCare Health System, the largest healthcare provider in the region.

Huge increase in teens needing mental health help since the pandemic

A recent report that tracks insurance claims revealed teens began the pandemic by seeking mental health treatment at record levels. A study by FAIR Health, which analyzed data from 32 billion private healthcare claim records in March and April 2020, showed mental health claims for individuals aged 13-18 approximately doubled compare to the same months in the previous year. More specifically, claims for intentional self-harm, overdoses and mental health diagnoses in the age group increased more than 90% during the same period.

The trend continued throughout 2020. For example, researchers at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Children’s Health at Michigan Medicine found that nearly half of parents of teens report their child has signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the start of the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, hospital ER visits for mental health issues have also been on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the amount of mental health ER visits by adolescents increased 31% between March and October 2020, compared with the same months in 2019.

National trend evident in the Tampa Bay area

This alarming national trend of teens showing up in hospital ERs seeking help for mental health problems is occurring in the Tampa Bay area, too, says BayCare’s Ryder. Ryder oversees behavioral health services at the healthcare system, which includes 15 hospitals. “This is a widespread problem throughout Tampa Bay,” she said. “The acuity of suicide is particularly disturbing with girls ages 13 to 16, who are seen far more than any other group in our emergency rooms.”

This rise in ER traffic for mental health problems has caused delays moving children into inpatient pediatric mental health facilities. “Children in desperate need of help are waiting days to get into a facility,” Ryder said, noting that children are increasingly being ‘Baker-Acted’ by parents, schools and law enforcement only to find that there may not be beds available at the time. The Baker Act is Florida’s law regulating involuntary psychiatric commitments.

There are many obvious reasons for this trend, such as kids not attending in-person school five days per week, and changes at home like job losses and unstable household incomes. Another factor that Ryder says should not be ignored is how COVID-19 has disrupted the teens’ normal routines. Ryder noted the disruption of routines has been especially challenging for autistic children, who are more dependent on schedules and structure.

Ryder has concerns for area children as summer break has arrived, making situations worse and persisting anxiety continuing to go untreated. “The coronavirus has caused a lot of trauma that will need to be healed,” she said.