FAIRWAY, KS (KCTV) --  During the pandemic, there has been great division in ways to stay safe from requirements, masks, or no masks, but most people agree COVID-19 has taken a toll on mental health. 

Hospital systems throughout the Kansas City metro tracked a rise in patients seeking mental health services at the beginning of the pandemic; the uptick has persisted. 

KCTV5 News looked into various topics regarding mental health in children, the industry of mental health, and signs parents and guardians can look for in their child, as well as treatment options.

During the pandemic, there has been great division in ways to stay safe from requirements, masks, or no masks, but most people agree COVID-19 has taken a toll on mental health.

BACK-TO-SCHOOL MENTAL HEALTH DEMAND

During the pandemic, there has been great division in ways to stay safe from requirements, masks, or no masks, but most people agree COVID-19 has taken a toll on mental health.

Changes in routine can be disruptive for children. The past 18 months have been chaotic for students who have transitioned from in-person learning, virtual, hybrid, and safety measures including masks, social distancing, and disinfecting procedures.

Dr. Mitchell Douglass is the medical director at the University of Kansas Health System’s Marillac location. The campus is one of the largest acute inpatient child psych hospitals in the Kansas City area.

Douglass says while most students experienced depression and anxiety when they were forced to learn from home, there are some who thrived in that setting. 

“There are some kids who had increasingly anxiety disorders or other conditions where they had a very structured environment and [at home] they weren't being pressed so they did somewhat better. Now they're going to be asked to change that really sort of established routine where they hadn't been stressed and been pushed to grow in a school environment...it could be challenging,” explained Douglass. 

As students are set to return to classes this fall, mental health professionals are bracing for the typical rise in mental health demand. The annual trend occurs because teachers and staff in a school setting often spot behaviors in children who need some additional support and issue referrals. However, this fall there could be more children needing treatment as pandemic exhaustion sinks in. Students have experienced COVID-19 protocols for nearly three school years starting with the spring of 2020. 

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SIGNS, SYMPTOMS, AND TREATMENT OPTIONS

The pandemic has been challenging physically and emotionally and for some people it has been overwhelming. Kids can pick up on their parents’ or adults’ mood, but it’s harder for them to process those feelings at their maturity level. There are signs, though, parents can look for to gauge if their child needs additional mental health support. 

While every child and teen responds differently to stress, there are signs parents and guardians can look for, including: 

  • Irritability or difficulty concentrating
  • Isolating from friends and loved ones
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Unexplained headaches or body pains

Dr. Danielle Johnson at the University of Kansas Health System says it’s important for adults to have open, honest, and reassuring conversations about COVID-19 with children.

“Know as a parent to ask questions. ‘Are you feeling like dying? Do you want to die?’ Don’t be afraid of using these words because words matter. We [want to] have a clear understanding if they're sad and down, but they're not thinking of killing themselves,” clarified Johnson.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends making time to unwind and do a fun activity, connect with community support groups, and seek professional support to prevent worsening effects in mental health.

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LONG WAIT TIMES FOR APPOINTMENTS & NOT ENOUGH MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS

At the start of the pandemic, mental health professionals saw a quick dip in the number of patients seeking treatment for mental health conditions. 

Douglass says, “there was no one in the hospital, and suddenly I was supposed to believe that there's no depression or psychiatric illness in the middle of a life changing pandemic? Then people got more comfortable realizing that they should reach out for help, then we're just running max.”

KU-Marillac has been at capacity for months because of the flood of patients. The inpatient facility has 84 beds, but has been operating at half capacity for safety reasons during the pandemic.

Dr. Danielle Johnson is a child psychologist at the University of Kansas Health System. She says even if the facility was accepting their normal capacity of patients, they would still be full. During the pandemic, Johnson has seen many new patients, including kids struggling with increased anxiety. 

Saint Luke’s Behavioral Health Services also experienced a large demand for services. Monty Miller is a clinical manager with the out-patient behavioral health services. He saw when the pandemic hit, it stalled efforts to hire more staff to meet the rising demand for treatment. 

“We could not catch up fast and there's been quite a long waiting list,” revealed Miller.

The hospital was forced to transition to virtual therapy sessions to keep patients safe from COVID-19, but Miller says now a growing list of new patients are favoring the telehealth setting over in-person.

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LONG- TERM MENTAL HEALTH EFFECTS

Even though hospitals across the metro have seen a rise in people seeking mental health services due stress and anxiety from the pandemic, doctors know some people are living with untreated mental health issues, which can be debilitating.

“We're going to see consequences and ramifications of this [pandemic] for up to 10 years or more. So I think this is only going to continue and the need for mental health services is only going to increase,” said Miller.

Miller says Saint Luke’s is working to hire more psycho therapists and psychiatrists as more patients opt for telemedicine and virtual therapy sessions. He says the pandemic has also changed accessibility in the way people want and can receive treatment. 

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