The onset of COVID-19 public health restrictions led to a surge in teens hospitalized for psychiatric issues, with girls experiencing the worst spikes in emotional breakdowns, a new study finds.
An international consortium of 27 researchers published the study Tuesday in JAMA Network Open, analyzing data from eight American and French children’s hospitals between Feb. 1, 2019, and April 30, 2021.
They found the number of children ages 11 to 17 hospitalized for severe anxiety, depression and suicide risk rose 14% from 9,696 in the 14 months through March 2020 to 11,101 in the following 13 months.
Over the same two periods, the percentage of teens receiving inpatient psychiatric care jumped from 33.6% to 36.4% of all hospitalizations in the age group.
“These findings support the need for greater resources within children’s hospitals to care for teens with mental health conditions during the pandemic and beyond,” the researchers wrote, noting that teen suicide rates have increased since 2010.
Girls went from 61.5% to 68.5% of all teens hospitalized for psychiatric issues before and after the first COVID quarantines, the study found.
The study did not explain why the gender rift widened while children stayed home. But girls more often watched video content alone, while boys more often played video games online with friends, said Nancy Jennings, director of the Children’s Education and Entertainment Research Lab at the University of Cincinnati.
“For boys, they already had established networks through gaming to maintain connections with peers,” Ms. Jennings said in an email. “Games tend to be engaging and a space for escapism from reality, providing mental health breaks from crisis management. Girls enjoyed connecting with friends online but some found it less fulfilling than in-person interactions and may have gotten less benefit from their devices than they were hoping for.”
The study echoes a growing number of reports that anxiety, depression and suicide risks skyrocketed among teens during pandemic lockdowns of schools and other social outlets.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the American Psychological Association (APA) have issued warnings about a lingering youth mental health crisis.
Tuesday’s study confirms that “a tsunami of mental health challenges has accelerated during the pandemic” among American youths, said clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, an APA member.
“Of course, we still need to be mindful that this study is based on correlation. Cause and effect relationships are complicated and other variables could be involved with the results, e.g., social media influences,” said Mr. Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University. “Nonetheless, we clearly are seeing an increase in mental health problems among youth and this study well demonstrates the crisis we are in.”
Teens have more trouble processing family stress at home and changes to familiar routines because their brains are still developing, said Laura DeCook, the California-based founder of LDC Wellbeing.
“Many adolescents were unable to cope with the social isolation and the ever-changing uncertainty that the pandemic brought to their lives,” said Ms. DeCook, who leads mental health workshops for families. “They lack the same type of resilience and coping mechanisms that adults have developed.”
Officials must be more careful moving forward about public health restrictions that inflict lasting harm on children, said some medical experts responding to the new study.
“Social distancing prevented the social engagement many youths need at these moments in order to mitigate mental health challenges and concerns,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “In the future, an understanding of the consequences of public health efforts is warranted to mitigate unintended consequences.”
The best way to mitigate such harms is to prepare better for future pandemics, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“It is important to understand that the lack of pandemic preparedness, which prompted more blunt mitigation measures, has had a cascading impact on health that extends beyond COVID,” said Dr. Adalja, an infectious disease specialist.