Hospitals and outpatient facilities are seeing more pediatric females for mental health patients than in pre-pandemic years, according to data analyzed by Epic Research.
Pediatric mental health encounters have generally dropped from the peak levels seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the rate of visits among females remains above pre-pandemic levels.
An analysis by Epic Research shows girls are more likely to visit emergency departments, outpatient facilities and hospitals for mental health concerns than pediatric males.
Epic’s researchers found that in May 2023, 5.4% of emergency department visits for pediatric females occurred for mental health reasons, compared to 2.9% for pediatric males.
Looking at hospital encounters in May 2023, 7.6% of visits among females involved mental health reasons, while 4.2% of pediatric male visits stemmed from mental health issues.
The researchers noted that adolescent males are less likely to seek help for mental health issues, so they acknowledged that they may have greater needs than the study indicates.
Kersten Bartelt and Matthew Gracianette, Epic Research clinicians, said in an email to Chief Healthcare Executive® that pediatric females had more encounters related to eating disorders.
The Epic researchers said it’s difficult to determine all the factors driving the higher rate of mental health encounters among girls.
Overall, pediatric outpatient encounters for mental health reasons among all patients dipped from a high of 4.3% of visits in April 2020 to 3.4% in May 2023. However, the May 2023 rate of mental health encounters is 11% higher than the pre-pandemic rate observed in November 2019 (3.1%)
Bartelt and Gracianette said it’s not clear what drove the decline in mental health encounters from pandemic highs, but they said it’s a subject worthy of additional study. They also said it was difficult to speculate on the reason outpatient mental health encounters remained higher than in 2019. They noted that the analysis did look at different months of the year, so visits could have been affected by seasonal illnesses or school wellness checks.
The rate of pediatric emergency department visits for mental health among all patients dropped from a high of 6.7% in November 2020 to 4.1% in May 2023. However, the May 2023 rate is higher than in November 2019 (3.5%), and the increase is driven largely by pediatric female patients.
Overall, pediatric hospital encounters for mental health didn’t see the rate of increases observed in outpatient facilities and emergency departments. In May 2023, 5.9% of pediatric hospital encounters involved mental health, compared to 6.1% in November 2019.
However, mental health hospital admissions among all pediatric patients appears to be increasing, rising from 5.0% in November 2022 to 5.9% in May 2023.
Epic analyzed data from 45 million outpatient visits, nearly 34 million emergency room encounters and 7.9 million hospitalizations between January 2015 to May 2023.
Some children’s hospitals said they experienced sharp increases in emergency room visits for mental health crises in 2022. They also noted that they were keeping kids in emergency departments longer than they would like because of a lack of available beds at psychiatric facilities.
Healthcare leaders have expressed alarm at the increase in behavioral health issues among children and teens. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association and more than 100 other groups signed a letter in October 2022 asking President Biden to declare a national emergency due the youth mental health crisis.
The AMA and the American Psychiatric Association have also called for the greater integration of behavioral health and primary care in order to identify kids who are struggling. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about the mental health crisis in youth in December 2021.