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05th Mar 2024

Study shows surge in children presenting at A&E for mental health illnesses during Covid lockdowns

Jody Coffey


There was a decrease in the overall number of A&E presentations

A study has revealed that the number of children seeking treatment for mental health illnesses at hospital emergency departments rose by over 25 per cent during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, there was a decrease in the overall number of emergency paediatric presentations, falling by almost 40 per cent during the same period as parents and guardians sought to avoid infection in healthcare settings.

In 2020, children attended a hospital emergency department for mental health illnesses such as deliberate self-harm, overdoses, and other psychiatric problems.

There was also a large increase in cases of anorexia nervosa, anxiety, and a number of other eating disorders, particularly in young females.

The retrospective study, published in the latest issue of the Irish Medical Journal, researched more than 80,000 visits to the paediatric emergency department at University Hospital Limerick (UHL) between 2017 and 2022.

Findings state that the number of medical presentations at the department had a reduction of 38.8 per cent—from 14,338 in 2019 to 8,769 in 2020.

This picked up in 2021 by 30.9 per cent and by a further 25.6 per cent in 2022.

Mental health was one of three categories of presentations that increased from 2019 to 2020

Other categories that saw an uptake in A&E presentations were skin infections and urinary issues, rising by 25.4 per cent.

Several potential factors may have led to the overall decrease in children presenting at the emergency department, according to doctors from the School of Medicine at the University of Limerick and the Department of Paediatrics at UHL.

‘Parental hesitancy’ was one reason, as parents and guardians may have avoided hospitals due to fears of contracting Covid-19.

Other contributing factors included the belief that health services may have been unavailable and/or the misunderstanding of government guidelines in place at the time.

“The decision to seek healthcare is complex and requires parents to weigh up numerous factors regarding their child’s need for healthcare, including the risk of their child catching Covid-19 and listening to government public health advice,” they wrote.

According to the authors, the analysis of the effect of Covid-19 on emergency department presentations is crucial in viewing limitations to ‘prehospital delay’ in the treatment of serious conditions.

They also recommended a further analysis of how public health messaging can be communicated most appropriately in the future.