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Kids' mental health is still pediatricians' greatest concern, one year into pandemic

Bethany Ao, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

PHILADELPHIA – Physician Steven Shapiro chairs the pediatrics department at Abington Hospital. He’s never been a therapist. Yet a big chunk of his medical practice these days is devoted to mental health issues, far more than ever before.

“Twenty percent of the calls I take now are to put kids on more medicine for panic attacks and anxiety,” said Shapiro. “It’s more than you could ever believe. It has been so difficult for them, and as pediatricians, we have to recognize the downstream effects of where things are going.”

Pediatricians and adolescent health experts have cautioned for months that the uncertainty and anxiety spurred by the pandemic, coupled with the lack of social contact, may have lasting effects on the mental health of children and teens, though they are significantly less likely than adults to experience serious physical illness from COVID-19.

And while declining case counts and the new vaccines may have adults feeling more optimistic, vaccines are not yet approved for those younger than 16. That means kids may still be feeling a lot of uncertainty and stress about what the rest of the year will look like for them, health experts say. Pfizer recently began vaccine trials for adolescents ages 12 to 16.

“For younger teens and children, they are likely most looking forward to the vaccine so that they may be able to get back to more normal social activities and gatherings with their friends, and so that they don’t have to worry as much about parents and older relatives,” said Stephanie Ewing, an assistant professor in counseling and family therapy at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions.

There also are concerns about the physical health of kids and teens. In the spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that showed that routine vaccinations — and regular checkups — fell drastically in the first few months of the pandemic as stay-at-home orders were in place. In a report published November by Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, childhood vaccinations for measles and whooping cough fell 26% compared to 2019.

 

One silver lining of the pandemic has been a significant decrease in cases of strep throat, flu, and ear infections, likely due to social distancing, said Jonathan Miller, a pediatrician in primary care at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.

But, Miller said, he’s also noticed “kids have been more inactive, doing a lot of screen time, and there’s definitely concern about them being at home for prolonged periods of time and that impact on overall well-being.”

Even more alarming: He’s observed an increase in depressive and anxiety symptoms, as well as thoughts of suicide. Because of that, his practice has shifted to more proactive and preventative care when dealing with behavioral and mental health, he said.

“We’re worried about them falling through the cracks,” Miller said. “So we’re trying to find new ways on telemedicine to give the family the ability to connect with us, and provide resources that can help them through troubling times.”

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