Global rise in children’s mental health problems amid a pandemic
By JOHN LEICESTER
PARIS (AP) – When his parents took him to the hospital, 11-year-old Pablo was barely eating and had completely stopped drinking. Weakened by months of deprivation, his heart had slowed and his kidneys were failing. Doctors injected him with fluids and fed him through a tube – the first steps in uniting another child falling apart amid the tumult of the coronavirus crisis.
For the physicians treating them, the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health is increasingly alarming. Since September, the pediatric hospital in Paris that cares for Pablo has doubled the number of children and adolescents requiring treatment after suicide attempts.
Doctors elsewhere report similar increases, with children, some as young as 8 years old, deliberately running into traffic, overdosing on pills, and otherwise injuring themselves. In Japan, child and adolescent suicides hit record highs in 2020, according to the Ministry of Education.
Pediatric psychiatrists say they are also seeing children with coronavirus-related phobias, tics and eating disorders, obsessed with infections, rubbing raw hands, covering their bodies in sanitizing gel and terrified of getting sick from food.
Also increasingly common, doctors say, are children suffering from panic attacks, heart palpitations and other symptoms of mental distress, as well as chronic addictions to mobile devices and computer screens who have become their caregivers, teachers, and entertainers. during lockdowns, curfews, and school closings.
“There is no prototype for the child who has difficulties,” said Dr. Richard Delorme, who heads the psychiatric unit that treats Pablo at the gigantic Robert Debré pediatric hospital, the busiest in France. “This concerns us all.”
Pablo’s father Jerome is still trying to understand why his son gradually became ill with a chronic eating disorder as the pandemic took hold of him, slowly starving until the only foods he ate were small amounts of rice. tuna and cherry tomatoes.
Jerome suspects that last year’s interruptions in Pablo’s routines may have contributed to his illness. Because France was locked up, the boy had no classes at school for months and was unable to say goodbye to his friends and the teacher at the end of the school year.
“It was very difficult,” Jerome said. “This is a generation that has taken a beating.”
Sometimes other factors add up to misery beyond the burden of the 2.6 million COVID-19 victims who have died in the world’s worst health crisis in a century.
Islamic State extremists who killed 130 in gun and bomb attacks in Paris in 2015, even in a cafe on Pablo’s way to school, he also left a burning mark on his childhood. Pablo used to believe that the cafe’s dead customers were buried under the sidewalk where he walked.
When he was hospitalized in late February, Pablo had lost a third of his previous weight. His heart rate was so slow that doctors struggled to find a pulse and one of his kidneys was failing, said his father, who agreed to discuss his son’s illness on the condition that they were not identified by his last name.
“It is a real nightmare to have a son who is destroying himself,” said the father.
Pablo’s psychiatrist at the hospital, Dr. Coline Stordeur, says that some of his other young patients with eating disorders, mostly 8 to 12 years old, told him that they began to obsess over weight gain because they couldn’t. stay active. A compensated boy running laps in his parents’ basement for hours each day, losing weight so precipitously that he had to be hospitalized.
Others told her that they gradually restricted their diet: “No more sugar, then no more fat, and finally no more of anything,” he said.
Some children try to keep their mental anguish to themselves, not wanting to burden the adults in their lives who may be mourning loved ones or jobs lost to the coronavirus. “They try to be forgotten children, who don’t add to their parents’ problems,” Stordeur said.
Children may also lack the vocabulary for mental illness. express your need for help and make a connection between your difficulties and the pandemic.
“They don’t say, ‘Yeah, I ended up here because of the coronavirus,’” Delorme said. “But what they tell you is a chaotic world, of ‘Yes, I don’t do my activities anymore’, ‘I don’t do my music anymore’, ‘Going to school is difficult in the morning.’ ‘ I have a hard time waking up, ” I’m sick of the mask ‘”.
Dr David Greenhorn said the emergency department at Bradford Royal Infirmary, where he works in the north of England, used to treat one or two children a week for mental health emergencies, including suicide attempts. The average is now closer to one or two a day, sometimes involving children as young as 8 years old, he said.
“This is an international epidemic and we are not recognizing it,” Greenhorn said in a telephone interview. “In the life of an 8-year-old, a year is a long, long, long time. They are fed up. They can’t see the end. ”
At Robert Debré, the psychiatric unit used to see around 20 cases of suicide attempts per month involving children aged 15 and under. Not only has that number doubled in a few months since September, but some children also seem increasingly determined to end their lives, Delorme said.
“We are very surprised by the intensity of the death wish among children who may be 12 or 13 years old,” he said. “Sometimes we have 9-year-old children who already want to die. And it is not simply a provocation or blackmail by suicide. It is a genuine desire to end their lives. ”
“The stress levels among children are really huge,” he said. “The crisis affects us all, from 2 to 99 years old.”
AP writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed.
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