Even as NSW emerged from its initial lockdown, the number of children receiving mental health-related services ballooned.
Lockdowns may have had long-lasting effects on young people’s mental health, according to data showing mental health services saw a sustained influx of patients in the months immediately after the first 2020 restrictions.
The findings have prompted calls for regular, targeted youth mental health interventions in the years to come.
While inpatient admissions and emergency department attendances at the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network fell for both injuries and chronic conditions during lockdown from March to May last year, mental health presentations remained the same as previous years.
When the lockdown ended and restrictions eased, injury presentations continued to stay low and chronic conditions returned to pre-pandemic levels, but mental health service use increased, according to an analysis published in The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific.
This increase was sustained throughout the rest of the year, with admission rates and ED attendances going up between 30% and 55% as compared to previous years, equating to 110 additional mental health related presentations per month.
The UNSW research, which captured data from The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick, compared hospital admission and ED presentation numbers from 2016 to 2019 to establish a baseline.
“The post-pandemic increase in mental health related health service use should be understood in the context of a steady increase in mental health problems among young people over the last decade both within Australia and internationally,” the authors wrote.
“The pandemic and the lockdown measures have potentially exacerbated (and reinforced) the long-standing issues among young people, such as social disconnectedness, loneliness, and uncertainty about their future.”
Given the pre-pandemic upward trend of paediatric mental health related presentations, the authors called for “additional and sustained support” for youth.
People accessing hospital-based mental health services were more likely to be teenage girls from advantaged socio-economic areas.
The researchers also said that although girls were overrepresented in their data, primary care clinicians should be on the lookout for adolescent boys experiencing mental health issues.
“Research has shown more boys than girls experienced a deterioration in externalising problems or neurodevelopmental disorders during the pandemic,” they wrote.
“However, most patients with externalising disorders are likely to use community or private healthcare instead of inpatient or ED services.”