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pandemic phenomenon 'Grave concern' over surge in distressed kids needing mental health services

The number of children looking for psychiatric help for mental health issues has soared since lockdown restrictions were lifted last summer.


Stock photo

Stock photo

Stock photo

Leading medical professionals have highlighted grave concern over mental health services to children as unpublished figures show a huge surge in distressed kids looking for help in A&E and with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) clinics.

The number of children looking for psychiatric help for mental health issues has soared since lockdown restrictions were lifted last summer.

Paediatric psychiatrists have been describing the pandemic phenomenon as a tsunami which is expected to continue to rise, sparking concern that the HSE's chronically under-staffed CAMHS will struggle to cope with the surge.

Clinicians are seeing increasing numbers of distressed children presenting with suicidal ideation, self-harm and eating disorders.


Cases of behavioural difficulties linked to sudden changes in routines and school closures in youths with learning difficulties and autism have been seen by medical professionals, while calls to Childline, voluntary organisations and domestic abuse services have also increased.

Figures show the number of mental health presentations by children aged five to 15 years at the three paediatric emergency departments in the capital shot up by 41 per cent in the four months from July to October, 2020 compared to 2019.

This is in stark contrast to overall emergency department attendances to Children's Health Ireland, which encompasses Temple Street, Crumlin Hospital and Tallaght Hospital, which fell by 15 per cent in the same period.

Dr Thèrése McDonnell, who compiled the data at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research, Education and Innovation in Health Systems in UCD, said it is a worrying trend.

"There are proportionally more girls turning up, with over 50 per cent of presentations happening out-of-hours, which is alarming as the out-of-hours mental health service is very poorly resourced," said the health economist.

"Some 467 children presented at these emergency departments with mental health conditions between July and October in 2020, up from 332 in the same period in 2019.

"The phrase 'mental health tsunami' has been used by some psychiatrists. They are concerned this is just the beginning."

CAMHS has seen a similar jump in numbers at the Lucena Clinic services, which provides specialist mental health services for a catchment area of just over 250,000 youths in and around Dublin, or 12.7 per cent of the country's child population.

Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UCD School of Medicine, Fiona McNicholas, said there was initially a reduction in referrals to all five of the Lucena clinics, in Dublin and Wicklow, at the start of lockdown and over the summer months. But from September, there has been a 50 per cent rise in referrals compared to the previous year, with rates in November increasing by 180 per cent.

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The consultant psychiatrist said it is unclear whether this upsurge reflected pent-up mental health difficulties not seen due to the initial stay-at-home lockdown orders; a deterioration in pre-existing conditions; depletion of resilience or new onset of mental illness.

At present, Ireland spends six per cent of its overall health budget on mental health - half the amount spent in countries like the UK and Germany.

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