His grades slipped badly, and he began to withdraw. “Next, he was telling us he couldn’t make himself do the work, that he didn’t want to disappoint us all the time, that he was worthless. Worthless.”
These young people do not necessarily qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis, nor are they “traumatized” in the strict sense of having had a life-threatening experience (or the perception of one.) Rather, they are trying to manage an interruption in their normal development, child psychologists say: a sudden and indefinite suspension of almost every routine and social connection, leaving a deep yet vague sense of loss with no single, distinct source.
The result is grief, but grief without a name or a specific cause, an experience some psychologists call “ambiguous loss.” The concept is usually reserved to describe the experience of immigrants, displaced from everything familiar, who shut down emotionally in a new and strange country. Or to describe disaster survivors, who return to neighborhoods that are hollowed out, transformed.
“Everything that used to be familiar and give structure to their lives, and predictability, and normalcy, is gone,” said Sharon Young, a therapist in Hendersonville. “Kids need all these things even more than adults do, and it’s hard for them to feel emotionally safe when they’re no longer there.”
The resulting changes in behavior can seem sudden: A bright sixth-grader is found cutting herself; a sweet-natured sophomore takes a swing at a parent or sibling. Parents, frightened, often don’t know where to go for appropriate help. Many don’t have the resources or knowledge to hire a therapist.
Families that land in the emergency departments of their local hospitals often find that the clinics are poorly equipped to handle these incoming cases. The staff is better trained to manage physical trauma than the mental variety, and patients are often sent right back home, without proper evaluation or support. In severe cases, they may linger in the emergency department for days before a bed can be found elsewhere.
In a recent report, a research team led by the C.D.C. found that less than half of the emergency departments in U.S. hospitals had clear policies in place to handle children with behavior problems. Getting to the bottom of any complex behavior issue can takes days of patient observation, at minimum, psychiatrists say. And many emergency departments do not have the on-hand specialists, dedicated space or off-site resources to help do the job well.
For Jean, diagnosing her son has been complicated. He has since developed irritable bowel syndrome. “He has been losing weight, and started smoking pot due to the boredom,” Jean said. “This is all due to the anxiety.”
Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, has an emergency department that is a decent size for a pediatric hospital, with capacity for 62 children or adolescents. But well before the arrival of the coronavirus, the department was straining to handle increasing numbers of patients with behavior problems.
“This was huge problem pre-pandemic,” said Dr. David Axelson, chief of psychiatry and behavioral health at the hospital. “We were seeing a rise in emergency department visits for mental health problems in kids, specifically for suicidal thinking and self-harm. Our emergency department was overwhelmed with it, having to board kids on the medical unit while waiting for psych beds.”
Last March, to address the crowding, Nationwide Children’s opened a new pavilion, a nine-story facility with 54 dedicated beds for observation and for longer-term stays for those with mental challenges. It has taken the pressure off the hospital’s regular emergency department and greatly improved care, Dr. Axelson said.
Over this pandemic year, with the number of admissions for mental health problems up by some 15 percent over previous years, it is hard to imagine what it would have been like without the additional, devoted behavioral clinic, Dr. Axelson said.
Other hospitals from out of state often call, hoping to place a patient in crisis, but there is simply not enough space. “We have to say no,” Dr. Axelson said.
This content was originally published here.