RI pediatricians, psychiatrists declare child, adolescent mental health 'State of Emergency'


It’s tough being a kid. In 2022, experts warn, it seems to be getting tougher.

As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, and we approach the endemic stage, mental health professionals are starting to examine the effects of lock-downs, school shutdowns and peak anxiety levels in our children.

Parents are experiencing record waiting times to secure mental health services for kids, and doctors are declaring a “Child and Adolescent Mental Health State of Emergency” in Rhode Island.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics, Rhode Island Chapter (RIAAP) the Rhode Island Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (RICCAP), Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and Bradley Hospital issued a declaration of emergency regarding the state of child and adolescent mental health in Rhode Island,” according to a press release distributed by local hospitals Tuesday.

“This has been an exceptionally troubling time for our children and adolescents — one that continues to be exacerbated by the pandemic and one that shines a light on the inequities that continue to exist in health care,” said Phyllis A. Dennery, MD, FAAP, pediatrician-in-chief and medical director, Hasbro Children’s Hospital. “Drawing attention to these discrepancies and this youth mental health crisis of epic proportions is a start, but we all must come together to provide the critical support these kids and families so sorely need.”

Resources can be scarce for families seeking mental health counseling and treatment.

“Amidst the stress and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are experiencing an unprecedented emergency in child and adolescent mental health here in Rhode Island,” said Henry Sachs, President of Bradley Hospital. “Prior to the pandemic, we were already experiencing troubling trends including increased youth suicides. The pandemic has pushed this situation into a full-blown emergency, with dramatic increases in emergency room visits for all child mental health crises. We are issuing this emergency declaration as a call to action to invest in our state’s child and adolescent mental health care system, and to implement innovative new strategies to address this crisis.”

Doctors are warning that they have been observing an unprecedented in childhood mental health crises.

“In my 21 years as a pediatrician, I have never seen so many children experiencing mental health challenges or lack access to community resources to meet their mental health treatment needs,” said RIAAP President Allison Brindle, MD. “The disruptions to usual routines and general stress that COVID has caused — on top of the usual stressors that kids and teens face— has taken a toll on children and families. They are having difficulty accessing resources needed to meet their child’s social and emotional needs, support their optimal development, and we are seeing the results in developmental delays and in a sharp increase in child and adolescent emergency room visits due to mental health issues. As a state, we need to come together to find ways to invest in our mental health system to better support our children through this emergency and to implement strategies that will promote positive mental health and prevent an emergency like this from occurring again in the future.”

Competition among different health sectors has tapped much-needed experience from the Ocean State’s mental health treatment network.

“As child and adolescent psychiatrist working with teens, it is clear that the stress and disruptions caused by COVID have pushed many of the patients I see to the point of experiencing mental health crises,” said RICCAP President Michael Wolfe, MD. “Unfortunately, at the very time this is occurring many of our state’s outpatient community providers are underfunded and are losing staff to higher paying jobs in other sectors. This means our youth are not receiving the community-based care they need, leading to more mental health emergencies.”

The pandemic has led to record levels of burn out among health professionals, and required the shift of resources from mental health to other realms of treatment.

“This emergency declaration is a call to action to better invest in Rhode Island’s network of community and school-based mental health providers,” Wolfe said. “We look forward to working with state government and health care leaders to implement recommendations that will address this child and adolescent mental health emergency and leave our system in a stronger position post pandemic.”

The Rhode Island Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Rhode Island Council for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Hasbro Children’s Hospital and Bradley Hospital have issued the “Declaration of a Rhode Island State of Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.”

“As health professionals dedicated to the care of children and adolescents in Rhode Island, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic,” states the declaration. “Children and families across our state have experienced enormous adversity and disruption. The inequities that result from structural racism have contributed to disproportionate impacts on children from communities of color at the same time as racial and ethnic diversity has increased in Rhode Island and is projected to rise in the future.”

The declaration calls for increased state funding, community-based systems of care, accelerated strategies to address longstanding workforce challenges in child mental health and bolstered implementation and sustainable funding of effective models of school-based mental health care, among other demands.

mental health, children's mental health