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Children's mental health needs reaching 'disastrous proportions' during pandemic

Doctors say the pandemic is causing kids' mental and behavioral health needs to get worse. Hospitals are now seeing a surge of kids coming to the ER to get help.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Doctors agree the pandemic is wreaking havoc on kids' mental health, with a surge in ER cases across the state.

East Tennessee Children's Hospital said the number of kids in doctors' offices and the ER are reaching "disastrous proportions."

It's a problem parents wish they could turn off at the end of the day. 

Elizabeth Allman has two young children. Her 6-year-old son Logan is learning from home and suffers from un-diagnosed behavioral needs and anxiety.

For him, the pandemic makes everything worse.

"Not going out hardly anywhere, doing school at home, not having those social interactions, it's just amplified all of his issues that we've been focused on dealing with," Allman nodded.

As hard as the pandemic is on adults, kids feel the stress in the same way, which is sometimes exacerbated by their parent's struggles.

"It's stressful, and of course you're trying to hide your own stress so that they don't stress out further and that makes it hard," Allman explained.

Their family is not alone. Dr. Joe Childs is the chief medical officer at East Tennessee Children's Hospital. He said while most kids physically have been able to handle COVID-19, the hospital is seeing a surge of "disastrous proportions" involving mental and behavioral health needs.

"The isolation and emotional toll can lead to depression and suicide you know drug and substance abuse," Childs explained. "A lot of behavioral health concerns and our ER is definitely seeing that."

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But there aren't enough mental health experts to handle the surge. There was already a shortage of help, and the pandemic made that more apparent.

"The addition of all this stress related to the pandemic is really overwhelming the system," Childs said.

Allman knows the feeling all too well.

"There's a waitlist everywhere," Allman nodded. "We're currently sitting on three different waitlists just to get a diagnosis."

The pandemic is replicating a form of trauma that kids living through this global health crisis will have to handle for years to come. Doctors are evaluating how this year will affect kids in the long run.

"Yeah it's hard, but I feel like we can always get through it if we have the right support system," Allman said.

Childs advises parents to look for sudden changes in their kids when deciding whether to seek help.

That can come in the form of appetite, outbursts, changes in sleep patterns, self-harming, or withdrawing from the conversation.