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March 17, 2022

Children's mental health has been getting worse over the last five years, study finds

The COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the need to monitor emotional well-being in pediatric populations, experts say

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Children Mental Health Keren Fedida/Unsplash

Children and adolescent mental health issues increased between 2016 and 2020, according to a study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rates of anxiety and depression in children have increased significantly over the last five years in the United States, according to new data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Researchers from the study evaluated health-related measures among 174,551 children who's ages ranged from birth to 17. Data was collected from the National Survey of Children's Mental Health that took place between 2016 and 2020. 

Findings showed that rates of anxiety and depression diagnosis in children rose by 29% and 27% during the study period, respectively. Though the increases were present prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a one-year analysis found a 21% increase in mental or behavioral conduct problems among children from 2019 to 2020. 

However, rates of mental health care did not increase along with diagnoses. The study noted that only 80% of the children who needed access to mental health care received it. 

"The first advice that I give to any parent is to have an open and honest conversation with your child at a level that they can understand," Dr. Darien Sutton, an emergency medical physician, told Good Morning America. "It's important to know that your role in that conversation is to make sure that you validate and support their concerns." 

The study also found that the group wasn't getting as much physical activity, with an 18% decrease in children getting at least 60 minutes of exercise and active movement each day. These rates were happening before the pandemic, but they continued as schools closed to in-person learning. 

Parent and caregiver mental health issues have increased as well. There was a 5% overall decrease in the amount of parents and caregivers with "excellent" or "very good" mental health, and an 11% decrease in caregivers who reported that they were coping "very well" with the demands of raising children.

"The pandemic has been particularly difficult on our children, who have been as scared and confused as the rest of us were," said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. "Today's study confirms what all too many of us know and feel in our daily lives: COVID-19 was an exceptional burden on the mental well-being of our nation's families, including kids. We will do everything we can to provide our youngest ones with the resources they need to overcome the effects this pandemic and thrive in the years to come." 

The study noted the increase in the proportion of children whose parents and caregivers have quit, declined, or changed jobs due to issues finding secure and stable childcare. There was a 34% increase from 2019 to 2020 due to the impacts of the pandemic. 

"Our research highlights a critical need to support both children and their caregivers to improve families' mental and emotional well-being," said Michael Warren, associate administrator of HRSA's Maternal and Child Health Bureau. "This includes ensuring access to timely health care services and addressing social determinants of health to support children and families' overall well-being." 

Investigators also saw a 19% increase in the amount of uninsured children and a significant decrease in children with continuous insurance. 

Pre-pandemic rates of medical hardship show a clear indication that parents have had difficultly affording medical costs. In 2020, the rate dropped to its lowest since 2016, signaling an increase in reports of unmet health care needs among parents. 

While preventative care increased in the years leading up to the pandemic, there was a significant decrease in 2020.

The study's authors said that the research does not allow for "inferences" about the impact of the COVID-19 on children, given that mental health rates in 2020 are only part of the overall picture of the pandemic. More research is needed on the specific impacts of the pandemic on children, investigators said.

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