Rise in paediatric mental health presentations after Sydney’s first lockdown

08 November 2021

A joint-study between UNSW and the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network (SCHN) has revealed a rise in mental health services used by children and adolescents after Sydney’s first lockdown in 2020.

The new research, published in The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific, compared admissions from January 2020 to February 2021 to hospital records between 2016 and 2019, to observe how the use of various health services changed during the pandemic.

Researchers found a noticeable drop overall in children’s hospital admissions to inpatient services and hospital emergency departments (ED) once lockdown came into effect in March 2020.

They say the drop in infectious and respiratory diseases can be attributed to social distancing and isolation. Not all health conditions saw a drop in health service usage, with mental health and cancer appearing to remain unchanged.

After lockdown ended in late May 2020, overall paediatric hospital and ED admissions returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, mental health related services, including ED admissions, for children and adolescents rose sharply beyond pre-pandemic levels. The number of children accessing mental health services also remained elevated for the duration of the study period.

“We found the number of mental health related inpatient admissions and emergency department attendances was higher than the predicted number, had the pandemic not occurred. This increase was overall between 30 to 55 per cent, persisting for months from June 2020 to February 2021,” said Dr Nan Hu, study lead author and Research Fellow at UNSW.

Examining the cohort more closely, researchers discovered that the majority of children who sought mental health services were females, between the ages of 12 to 17, and from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds.

Study senior author Professor Raghu Lingam, Professor of Paediatric Population Health at UNSW and consultant paediatrician with SCHN, said the findings can inform how health services can respond to the mental health needs of young people as the pandemic unfolds.

“We believe this work highlights the real need for sustained and targeted delivery of mental health services for children and adolescents during and beyond the pandemic,” he said.

Dr Katherine Knight, Director of Mental Health at SCHN, agreed, adding the approach should be holistic and involve clinicians and families alike.

“My work cannot help people without a collaborative approach. The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes parents and carers with a personal sense of direction and effort,” Dr Knight said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, SCHN has implemented additional occupational therapy, art therapy and music therapy sessions to assist patients requiring acute mental health support. While nursing, medical and allied health teams have also been using a range of therapeutic interventions to ensure patients and their families are receiving the best support possible.

Researchers will now begin to broaden their study to include hospital data collected during the second lockdown up until September 2021, while also incorporating paediatric data from GPs.

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