October 22, 2021

Pediatric organizations declare national emergency in mental health

Joanna Quigley, M.D., was interviewed for this MD Edge article. 

Original article on MDEdge's website. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a national emergency in children’s mental health.

COVID-19 has taken a serious toll, the organizations say, on top of already mounting challenges. Policy changes are urgently needed, they say.

“Today’s declaration is an urgent call to policymakers at all levels of government – we must treat this mental health crisis like the emergency it is,” AAP President Lee Savio Beers, MD, said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between March and October 2020, emergency department visits for mental health emergencies rose by 24% for children ages 5-11 years and 31% for children ages 12-17 years. ED visits for suspected suicide attempts increased nearly 51% among girls ages 12-17 years of age in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.

Recent data in Pediatrics also show a marked increase in loss of a caregiver and sharp disparities by race and ethnicity.

“We found that from April 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021, over 140,000 children in the U.S. experienced the death of a parent or grandparent caregiver. The risk of such loss was 1.1 to 4.5 times higher among children of racial and ethnic minorities, compared to non-Hispanic White children,” researchers wrote.


Joanna Quigley, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in an interview, “It’s very powerful that these three groups came together and made a joint effort and statement to really highlight how serious this problem is across the country.”

She said she sees all of the challenges the leaders of the organizations describe.

At Michigan, she said, as elsewhere, specialists are seeing a large increase in the number of children presenting to the children’s psychiatric ED and the children’s ED and increased demand for outpatient services.

Children in need are waiting “several months” to see either therapists or psychiatrists, she said.

Dr. Quigley said primary care offices are seeing more children and children with higher levels of anxiety and depression as well as self-harm and suicidal thoughts in the pandemic.

She noted that it’s challenging to find providers who are accepting new patients and hard to find providers who take certain kinds of insurance, particularly Medicaid, she said.

Change will take strengthening all the areas of support the organizations’ leaders are calling for, she said.

“School-based interventions are so vital, especially for these children who have been away from an in-person setting and were without services for the time that schools were shut down,” she said.

Dr. Quigley and Dr. Triana report no relevant financial relationships.