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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 Systems, the Hillsborough County School District, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, and others.

While everyone has struggled with the impact of the coronavirus, children have been hit particularly hard. Nearly half of parents have reported that their child has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the start of the pandemic. In fact, stress from the pandemic has impacted the mental health and well-being of children as well as parents in a variety of ways like increased anxiety, depression, hostility and interpersonal sensitivity.

Since the pandemic, the national trend of teens seeking mental health help has been evident in the Tampa Bay area. As one indicator, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and BayCare Health System have been experiencing higher numbers of emergency room visits by teens seeking help related to mental health issues. Also, Hillsborough School District has reported a higher number of student referrals for mental health services since the pandemic began.

“We’re seeing a lot of the same things as BayCare, like increases in suicidal ideation and in acuity,” said Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology and neuropsychology and co-director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Katzenstein said she and her team members are also seeing two other national trends play out locally — children with autism being particularly affected, and a spike in eating disorders.

Children with autism are particularly affected by pandemic

A survey of more than 3,500 parents and caregivers of individuals with autism found the pandemic has worsened the symptoms of the developmental disorder for many. Respondents most often cited the cause as disruptions in services like special education and speech, physical and occupational therapies. Researchers reported that children with autism under age 5 were most severely impacted because they did not respond as well to help via telehealth services.

“We’re seeing unusually high numbers of autistic children and their parents seeking mental health help,” Katzenstein said, noting autistic children are challenged even by small changes in routines, making the chaotic time of the coronavirus profoundly more daunting.

Eating disorders on the rise during COVID-19

Eating disorders were on the rise before the pandemic, which has fueled a spike in the numbers of people seeking help. For example, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline recently reported a 40 percent increase in calls since March 2020. And a 2020 study of 1,000 people with eating disorders in the U.S. and the Netherlands found those already diagnosed with anorexia before the pandemic were likely to eat less while those with bulimia and binge‐eating disorder had more frequent episodes and urges.

Locally, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has been treating substantially more children for eating disorders since the pandemic. “For some kids, eating provides a level of control during the uncertainty of the pandemic,” Katzenstein said. “There are so many different stress factors like job losses and family financial challenges that are out of a child’s control.”

Tampa Bay Thrives is a new resource in the Tampa Bay area

Tampa Bay Thrives is a innovative nonprofit that will help people having mental health and substance use issues find the help they need. The services, which will begin over the summer in a Hillsborough County pilot, will focus on navigation and access to the right counselor as well as awareness that there is no shame in seeking help. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital is a partner in the effort.