Juneau’s hospital reports surge in kids experiencing mental health crises

A mostly empty hospital hallway
A nearly empty critical care unit at Bartlett Hospital on April 7, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. on (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital is seeing a surge in children experiencing mental health crises.

Hospital officials say the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are to blame.

Bartlett’s emergency department has treated an unprecedented number of kids experiencing high levels of stress, thoughts of self-harm and suicide attempts over the past seven months.

Chief Behavioral Health Officer Bradley Grigg told the Juneau Assembly on Monday that the kids and their families bring up the impacts of the pandemic when interviewed by staff.

“We’re not really attributing everything here specifically to COVID, but what we are saying is that this is what our families and our parents are sharing when they come in in crisis,” Grigg said. “There seems to be precipitating factors connected with that stress level.”

According to hospital data, during the nine month period from July 2019 to last March, kids made up about 4% of the patients seen in the emergency department for behavioral health crises.

After the pandemic began and schools moved to online learning, that number shot up.

Between April and June of this year, kids made up almost 20% of the cases.

“While we say age 17 and under, the youngest one we’ve seen is five,” Grigg said. “Our most common age group at this point in the last six months has been 13 – 14.”

From April through September, the number of children 13 and under who attempted suicide also grew dramatically.

A graph showing children’s psychiatric visits to Bartlett Regional Hospital’s emergency department.
(Graph courtesy of Bradley Grigg)

Families involved in treatment after an incident talk about financial struggles and housing issues.

Those concerns are clearly trickling down to kids, Grigg said, who also bring up virtual school and the lack of sports and extracurricular activities.

And the problem isn’t exclusive to any one demographic.

“They’re families that you know. They’re families that I know. They’re families that we pass not only in the grocery store, but at any other activities we do,” Grigg said. “We may not recognize them at first with the mask on, but eventually these are folks that we know. They come from all walks. They come from all areas of town.”

Assembly member Wade Bryson weighed in as a parent who has dealt with some of the same concerns.

“I can assure you that not only does the kid stress about it, but the parents not having clear direction, not having a clear answer on how to solve it, also adds an element of stress,” Bryson said. “Depression and these types of illnesses affect the whole family, not just the individual kid.”

Grigg said Bartlett reached out to the state several months ago to ask for help responding to the high number of cases.

The state provided some funding to help expand their outpatient services at the hospital. That’s allowed staff to do more follow-up with families and patients in the weeks and months following a crisis.

Bartlett is not alone. SEARHC, JAMHI, Juneau Youth Services and other providers are also offering mental health support for youth and adults.

Bartlett also plans to build a crisis stabilization center on its campus to be able to treat up to eight patients at a time.

But Grigg said as the pandemic drags on and social isolation continues to impact mental health, they need to do more.

He and Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss have discussed what they’re seeing.

During a community update Tuesday, Weiss talked about using grant money to hire more positions as virtual learning continues.

“We are looking at how we can support students and families in this real really, really unique situation where students are missing out on not only the structure part of those activities, but the social part of that,” Weiss said.

Grigg and Weiss plan to meet with local organizations to talk about solutions, like training educators and coaches how to recognize the signs of stress in children and ways to address it.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Families: How has the pandemic impacted your mental health and that of your children? KTOO wants to talk to people about how virtual learning, quarantine and social isolation are affecting mental health here in Juneau.

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