More kids treated in hospitals for mental health

A review of insurance claims data found sharp increases in admissions and emergency department visits.

More young people have been admitted to hospitals for mental health treatment in recent years.

From 2016 to 2021, there was a 61% increase in mental health inpatient hospital admissions among those 19 and younger, according to a report by Clarify Health, a cloud analytics company that works with providers and payers. The company analyzed data from insurance claims in

Over that six-year span, there’s been a 20% increase in mental health emergency department visits, the company found.

Healthcare leaders said there’s been a growing mental health crisis among young people that began before the arrival of COVID-19, but the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned of the uptick in young people going to the hospital for mental health reasons in the pandemic. From April through October 2020, the CDC reported a 31% increase in mental health-related emergency department visits from kids 12 to 17 years old, compared to 2019. In that same span, there was a 24% increase in ED visits among children ages 5-11.

Niall Brennan, chief analytics and privacy officer for Clarify Health, said the rising number of children requiring hospital treatment for mental health merits attention.

“This research shines a light on the toll that the pandemic and other stressors have taken on our children’s mental health over the last five years—and as a father, the health and wellbeing of America’s youth could not be more top of mind for me,” Brennan said in a news release accompanying the study.

“Our hope is that this analysis helps spark a wider conversation around the need to improve access, utilization, and quality of pediatric behavioral health services.”

The increases in hospital admissions due to mental health reasons were highest among those children between the ages of 12 and 15. Hospital admissions rose 68% for boys ages 12-15 and 64% for girls in that age group.

The report also identified disparities based on the family’s insurance. Among families with commercial insurance, the number of youth inpatient admissions for mental health rose 103%, compared to a 40% increase among those relying on Medicaid.

In 2021, emergency department visits were twice as high among children whose families were on Medicaid than those with private insurance.

Jean Drouin, CEO and co-founder of Clarify Health, said in a statement that the report hopefully will “spark a conversation about the overall wellbeing of America’s next generation.”

“The trends illuminated in this report reinforce health care leaders’ responsibility to address children’s mental health, especially when considering that half of all mental health conditions onset during adolescence and carry into adulthood,” Drouin said in a statement.

While hospital admissions and emergency department visits rose significantly, the report found only a modest 5% increase in the use of outpatient mental health services and in-person office visits. The report said the sharp decrease in outpatient use during the initial months of the pandemic played a factor here.

Healthcare leaders have been pushing for the greater integration of behavioral health and primary care. Some have noted this would be a particularly good approach in reaching out to help children and teens, since most kids typically see a primary care physician.

In a July article in Health Affairs, several prominent healthcare organizations urged bringing behavioral health into the mix with primary care. Mark Del Monte, chief executive officer of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was one of the leaders citing the critical need to help kids with their mental health struggles.

“Pediatricians have observed and raised alarm about the mental health crisis confronting children and adolescents well before the pandemic, and we are now facing a pivotal moment where urgent action is needed in and outside of pediatric offices to help confront it,” Del Monte said in a statement in July.