Pediatric suicide-related emergency department visits show alarming rise

988 Suicide Prevention Lifeline
988 Suicide Prevention Lifeline(MGN)
Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 5:55 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Parents need to be on red alert: The University of Wisconsin in Madison is reporting that children under the age of 14 - middle schoolers - had the highest increase in psychiatric emergency room visits over the past four years, with the greatest increase in thoughts of hurting themselves.

Shanda Wells is a Behavioral Health Specialist and Clinical Psychologist with the University of Wisconsin Health, and she observes an alarming trend: “I’ve been doing this work for over a decade and it’s never gotten easier. It’s only gotten harder.”

Harder - because the need for psychiatric help for children continues to outpace the experts available: “It’s just very hard. There are not enough of us. Know, half of my job is hiring child providers to see patients and it’s, it’s dire,” Wells adds.

A dire situation - made clearer with new data just released from the University of Wisconsin Health Kids. Over the past decade, children going to UW Health’s Pediatric Emergency Department for Psychiatric Care has nearly tripled, increasing from 15 to 40 kids per month.

The greatest increase is due to suicidal ideation - especially in patients aged 14 and younger.

Wells says there is not sufficient data to conclude why children younger than 14 have had the highest increase in psychiatric visits over the last four years.

But she says there are risk factors, such as loneliness, isolation or hopelessness. Along with societal factors like poverty, sexual orientation and racism. According to Wells, the pandemic made the situation even worse: “I think kind of a mix mash up all of those stressors have really hit that age, population hard.”

So what can parents do to help their children?

Wells says that it starts with an open, non-judgmental conversation: “Being welcomed to hearing what they have to say even if it’s hard, investigating questions with curiosity and not judgment, and taking anything that your child says seriously, we know that often children who try to hurt themselves one way or another have expressed this to someone.”

Wells says that calling the child’s doctor or the national 988 hotline are also good resources. If, however, it is an emergency, it is vitally important to seek help immediately.

She recognizes the lack of financial support - in general - for emergency services for children and teen’s mental health: “Which is really too bad because we know that the quicker you intervene, and the younger you intervene with someone with mental health problems, the more likely they are to have success in that treatment.

Wells is hoping the government will step in and acknowledge the issue, sending more funds their way. But no matter what - psychologists like Wells are there to help: “That’s the message I want to send your folks I know it feels really hopeless at times. I’ve seen so many kids get better. Like there is hope. If we can get kids the care they need. There’s a lot of hope.”