A surge of young Australians in New South Wales sought out mental health services following the first wave of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 compared to the prior years.
A joint study between the University of New South Wales and the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network observed the number of children’s admission to hospital services and emergency departments between January 2020 and February 2021.
There was a noticeable drop in overall hospital admissions for chronic conditions and acute infections and injuries during lockdowns, but it soon returned to pre-pandemic levels by June.
However, the use of children’s mental health-related services remained the same during lockdowns, then rose sharply above pre-pandemic levels once the lockdowns ended.
Researchers found that the majority of young Australians aged 12 to 17 who sought mental health services were from socio-economically advanced backgrounds.
“The increase in mental health-related service use should be understood in the context of a steady increase in mental health difficulties and related health service use among children and adolescents over the last decade in Australia,” study lead author Nan Hu said.
“The unintended consequence of the lockdown measures such as social isolation; reduced access to school, and community services have potentially exacerbated the long-standing issues faced by the young people.”
Hu said it was difficult to determine exactly why the increase was led by young people from well-off families.
“One possible reason for this could be that there was reduced access to community mental health specialists that would otherwise be available to children in these advantaged areas in pre-pandemic times,” Hu said.
Study senior author Raghu Lingam said the work highlights the real need for sustained and targeted mental health services for children and adolescents during and after the pandemic.
“We need more monitoring of direct and indirect outcomes among children as the pandemic evolves in years to come,” Lingam said.
The final report by the mental health and suicide prevention parliamentary committee recommended that when reforming the system, the focus should be on early intervention as most mental health issues arise before the age of 14.
“Early intervention and prevention education campaigns are critical to preventing long-term mental health conditions,” Committee chair Fiona Martin said. “So it’s really important that we focus on children and provide early intervention for children who have any early signs or issues.”