RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Mental health emergencies among children are skyrocketing in Central Virginia as the pandemic drags on. Doctors and parents across the nation are sounding the alarm on an increase in youth anxiety, depression and suicide.

Health experts warn distance learning maybe sending youth into dark places.

Parent Josh Curtis says when COVID-19 shutdown schools, his son shutdown. “He’s at the point now where he just doesn’t care,” he said.

Curtis’ once active 11-year-old son Braxton isn’t coping well with virtual learning and isolation. Curtis said, “He was a star student and now he’s not going to class and he just doesn’t care.”

The CDC reports mental health visits to the emergency room by children ages 12 to 17 increased by 31% in 2020. Area hospitals are seeing it too. That includes The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU which told us:
“The pandemic has impacted the mental health of children of all ages. We have seen a slight increase in ER visits related to mental health, but we’re not able to provide any specific data. There are multiple factors that could impact these numbers (i.e., are we seeing more in the ED at CHoR because we’re a safety net and families have been impacted by job loss; are children presenting with an un-related medical complaint, but have an underlying mental health need that’s impacting their health; etc.)”

We recognize the pandemic has hit families in multiple ways and are dedicated to providing our community with information on how to talk about mental health, when to be concerned and suicide prevention. Awareness and prevention are key to this conversation.”

Tucker Pavilion, a Behavioral Health Center at Chippenham Hospital and part of HCA Health Systems reports a record number of youth admissions at the start of this year. Nelson Smith is Vice President of Behavioral Health for Chippenham and Johnston-Willis hospitals.

He said, “It’s a nationwide epidemic caused by a pandemic.”

Doctor Walid Fawaz, a psychiatrist with HCA health systems says Tucker Pavilion has seen some of children as young as seven years old. “This was not the case like two years ago,” he said. Nelson also says one thing that is particularly significant is the number of first time hospitalizations.

Statewide there’s been an alarming increase in youth suicides.

According to the Office of The Chief Medical Examiner for Virginia, there were 82 suicides in 2020, compared to 66 the year before. Doctors say for some children, COIVD and closing schools closed their lives. They’re missing in-person interaction with friends, sports and other activities.

“It’s a mix of emotions, isolated, lonely, missing friends, nothing much to do,” said. Dr. Fawaz. Author clinical psychologist Doctor Claire Nicogossian says parents need to engage with their children. “You really want to connect every day with your child,” she said.

The psychologist also says have a conversation with your child. “We don’t judge them, so we want to say of course this is a big lose, of course you miss soccer, of course you miss dance class,” said Dr. Nicogossian.

She also urges parents to be on the lookout for changes in appetite, weight, sleep and mood. “Do they have a lot of negative self-talk, do they have a sense of hopelessness about the future,” she asked.

If so, it could be the signs of depression.

Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield schools all tell me they have monitors and alerts systems in place to look out for kids who may be struggling emotionally.

Richmond Public Schools tells 8News, “Our staff monitors and checks in on our students and families with regard to mental health and well-being. During the pandemic, we have seen an increase in sadness, feelings of anxiety, and some social isolation”

Henrico County Public Schools has school-based mental health staff that work with community partners to help connect families with resources. Other services include, consultations for families and staff as well individual and group counseling sessions. The school district also has immediate response and support mechanisms in place for students. Concerned parents should contact their child’s school counselor.

A statement from the school division explains, “It’s typical of any year that we stay in touch with other community resources to bring in additional mental health programs and events for families.”

HCPS told 8News about another program they offer called Signs of Suicide (SOS). “This prevention program includes a staff training, parent informational letter, and student lessons.” The program is open to students in grades 8 and 10, parents may opt-out their student.

Chesterfield County Public Schools explains that, “All schools have a school-based student support team inclusive of school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists and school nurses. In addition, CCPS has three division-level mental health support specialists assigned to elementary, middle and high schools.”

Chesterfield students are taught social-emotional lessons in the classroom and particiate in schoolwide “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.”

Another CCPS tool against mental illness is Gaggle Alerts. The district says, “K-12 local school and county level student support services team members monitor Gaggle Alerts 24/7/365 to involve parents immediately when a student writes about potential safety to self or other concerns on their school-issued Chromebook. Gaggle is a student/school safety technology application with a mental health and safety focus.”

Staff receive training to identify students who are struggling emotionally and connect them with school resources. CCPS says, “When students are identified as needing support, student support team members involve parents immediately. Information related to the stated concern and information about how to access additional community mental health resources that go beyond what school-based mental health can offer are shared. These include Chesterfield Prevention, Chesterfield Crisis, and Chesterfield Mental Health.”

The school division also has ongoing partnerships with Chesterfield Prevention and Chesterfield Suicide Awareness and Prevention Coalition. They partner on programs such as, More Than Sad, Raise Your Voice, Positive Parenting Coalition Institutes, and Sytems of Care events and trainings.

“Additionally, the CCPS Office of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) and CCPS Mental Health Support Services Team offers caregiver trainings collaboratively with Chesterfield Prevention focused on Youth Mental Health First Aid and Mental Wellness Supports for Families.”

If you suspect your child is struggling experts say talk to your pediatrician. The 24-hour National Suicide Preventions Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can also text “home” to 741741.

Other resources:
HCA Mental health specialists and doctors in Virginia Mental Health Resources

National Institute of Mental Health Shareable Resources on Child and Adolescent Mental Health