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COVID Spurs Rise In Child Mental Health Treatment

March 25, 2021

Maggie is a 12-year-old who, by all accounts, lived a relatively normal life.  Once the coronavirus hit Connecticut however, things took a downward turn.

“I was normally going to school every day, I had friends, I talked to them. When COVID hit, we all went on-line. I couldn’t talk to my friends real well, didn’t have great communication with them,” Maggie said.

The lack of communication, the feeling of isolation and despair took its toll.

“It made me sad, made me feel depressed. I just wanted to lay down every day. I didn’t want to do anything else because I couldn’t talk to my friends. I felt like nobody understood me. Normally during the summer time I would go out with my friends, play, ride my bike, have fun. But I just didn’t. I would stay inside, play video games and cry, she said.”

Her depression grew. Unsure how to help her themselves, Maggie’s parents rushed her to emergency room. After meeting with counselors, she was taken to the St. Vincent’s Inpatient Behavioral Health Services Center in Westport for treatment.

Her story is not an anomaly. The adolescent unit at St. Vincent’s has 16 beds, all of which are full. This has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The biggest change has been (that) summertime months for us tend to be relatively slow times in terms of admissions. There is no school stress, both academic and social, so our admissions usually dip,” said Chris Maher, treatment coordinator at St. Vincent’s. “That was a huge change this year. Our admissions stayed really steady, which I think said a lot to us about kids not having a social outlet.”

The situation has contributed to an increase in screen time. Children who were already being forced to use tablets and computers for distance learning have simply stayed in front of said instruments, surfing the internet.  According to Sunanda Murralee, MD, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry unit chief at St. Vincent’s, the extra time on-line can have some serious negative effects.

“There is no structure of school, no outdoor activity or outlet. It’s isolated,” Dr. Murralee said. “They don’t have the break for lunch or recess. There is a lot of isolation, a lot of screen time. They are spending a lot of time on social media looking at YouTube videos and TikTok videos, and then they learn how to cut, indulging in more self-injurious behaviors.”

Because of the pandemic, Dr. Murralee continued, children are spending more time intreatment than before. Maggie was at St. Vincent’s for two weeks. However, it was her second time in the facility in a month. After a 10-day stint the first time, she went home only to have another episode.  In some cases, the treatment is necessary just to help the children not feel so alone.

“I feel like our length of stay is a little longer for kids during the pandemic,” Dr. Murralee said. “I think when they come here, it’s almost like going to camp or living in a boarding school. When children come here, they have 15 other kids, as opposed to being isolated in their house.”