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Girls mental health suffered the most during pandemic, data shows

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(NEW YORK) — Four years since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, new data shows how severely the pandemic impacted young people’s mental health, particularly girls.

During the pandemic, there was an increase in severe emergency room psychiatric visits for children and teens, including for conditions like bipolar disorder, substance abuse disorders, and schizophrenia, according to research published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine.

In addition, mental health-related emergency room visits increased “beyond expected rates” for girls near the end of the pandemic, from 2021 to 2022, according to the research.

“We observed a unique vulnerability for girls during the pandemic, which indicates that girls’ mental health requires more attention,” the study’s lead author, Jennifer Hoffmann, MD, MS, emergency medicine physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said in a statement.

The newly published data, which looked at emergency room visits across nine U.S. hospitals, builds on existing data showing an ongoing mental health crisis among young people.

In the last months of 2021, the U.S. surgeon general described the pandemic’s impact on youth mental health as “devastating,” and organizations representing child psychiatrists, pediatricians and children’s hospitals declared a national emergency for youth mental health.

A study published in 2022 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than 1 in 3 high school teens dealt with poor mental health during the pandemic, and 1 in 5 reported considering suicide.

The same study found that nearly 3 in 4 teens reported at least one adverse childhood experience — such as bullying, loss of a parent, or violence — during the pandemic.

Prior research has established a link between adverse childhood experiences and an increased risk of chronic health conditions, changes in behavior, depression, anxiety, and suicidal behaviors.

In addition, the pandemic also brought on social isolation for many teens, which can also impact their mental health, according to Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent and a board-certified OBGYN and obesity medicine specialist.

“This is a vulnerable group. Their premise for development is actually social connectedness, so that explains why the pandemic had such a negative impact on them,” said Ashton, who was not involved in the research. “And anatomically, the prefrontal cortex, those connections are immature and subject to significant consequences based on environment, so again, there’s actual anatomy and physiology to explain why this is happening.”

Ashton said it’s important for parents and healthcare providers to remember that mental illness may present differently in kids than it does in adults.

Symptoms of mental health struggles in kids may look like social isolation, changes in sleep patterns, abusing alcohol or drugs, hurting other people or engaging in self-harm, exercising or dieting obsessively, and feeling sad and hopeless, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Ashton noted that a child’s mental health should be prioritized as much as their physical health. And just like a child would go to a doctor for a physical health condition, there are resources available for professional help with mental health as well.

According to the CDC, schools are important resources for help with mental health, as well as medical doctors, including psychiatrists, and mental health counselors and psychologists.

“You have to understand that you don’t have to navigate this by yourself,” Ashton said. “If you have concerns, if you have questions, ask for help. Mental health professionals, your child’s pediatrician, this is their wheelhouse and they can help.”

If you are experiencing suicidal, substance use or other mental health crises, please call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You will reach a trained crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also go to 988lifeline.org.

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