Anxiety is sending twice as many kids to the emergency room as it was a decade ago

A new report shows that Ontario children and youth are accessing mental health care more than ever, and anxiety is one major reason they need help.

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Feel like the world is a more stressful place than it was 10 years ago? Kids feel that way too. Since 2006, the number of children and youth going to emergency departments for anxiety has doubled.

The Mental Health of Children and Youth in Ontario 2017 Scorecard, released today by the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), looked at how children and youth ages 0 to 24 accessed care for mental health and addiction services from 2006 to 2014 and found that kids are seeking help for mental-health issues more often, and anxiety is one of the leading problems they face.

In Ontario, in 2014, 40 percent more children and youth were seeing psychiatrists than in 2006. And between 2012 and 2014, about 18 in every 100 kids under the age of 9, and about 26 kids in every 100 from the ages of 10 to 13 saw a doctor or psychiatrist about mental health issues.

But it isn’t all bad news. Astrid Guttmann, chief science officer at ICES and a paediatrician at SickKids Hospital, says that while the numbers may point to growing rates of issues like anxiety, it’s also likely that decreased stigma for getting help and better access to resources are playing a role. “With youth data, it’s so hard to know how much of that was unmet needs beforehand—so kids used to be suffering at school and at home without seeking help—versus having more mental health problems,” she explains. Still, she says, “There is some evidence that children are displaying more anxiety.”

Indeed worldwide, mental illness affects 10 to 20 percent of children and youth. In Ontario alone, 20 percent of children and youth experience a mental illness at any given time, and a whopping 70 percent experience the onset of a mental illness throughout their childhood or adolescence.

Right now, there are some signs that many kids are not getting help as speedily as they should be. According to the scorecard, there was a 53 percent increase in emergency department visits for mental health and, for 45 percent of kids and youth who went for help with a mental health issue, this was their first point of contact for seeking mental health care.

Guttmann says the results show that kids are using more of all kinds of health services—not just emergency services—which is a good sign. “But it also signals that probably some of these mental health problems aren’t being dealt with early enough, or in the setting that may be most appropriate,” she says. In other words, it’s best not to wait until mental health problems actually become an emergency. The stats also showed that kids from low-income neighbourhoods were more likely to be heading to the emergency room for mental health care.

Guttmann encourages parents to seek help from a doctor or paediatrician early if they see signs of mental health problems in their kids. “You have to advocate for your child, and your primary care physician should be a resource for that,” she says.

“These are problems that have effective treatments—and not necessarily all pharmacologic treatments—and I think that’s something that’s good to know.”

Read more: 
How to talk about mental health with your kids
6 ways to calm your anxious child

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