The challenges of online learning and social isolation have taken a tremendous toll on teen mental health—but the return to on-site school brings an equally significant set of stressors. Teens are struggling to catch up academically and cope with in-person bullying and peer pressure, while experiencing high levels of social anxiety after months of limited real-life interaction.
This combination of factors puts adolescents at high risk for a mental health crisis, particularly if they have experienced psychological issues in the past. When teens manifest severe symptoms with little warning, parents are often left with just one option: a visit to the emergency room at their local hospital.
Data Shows a Jump in Teen Emergency Room Visits for Suicide Attempts
Due to the increasingly limited number of treatment providers across the country and the prevalence of adolescent trauma, depression, and anxiety, ER visits for mental health issues have gone up drastically, and even more so since the start of the pandemic. The proportion of mental health emergency room visits for teens (ages 12–17), among all teen emergency room visits, went up by 31 percent in 2020 as compared to 2019, according to a CDC report. Furthermore, this age group had the highest proportion of ER visits related to mental health.
An update to the report, released in June 2021, examined the data on ER visits for suspected suicide attempts. Researchers found that between February 21 and March 20, 2021, visits for suspected suicide attempts went up by 51 percent among girls aged 12–17, as compared to the same time period in 2019. For boys aged 12–17, ER visits for suspected suicide attempts increased by 4 percent.
When a Teen Emergency Room Visit is Necessary
“Ultimately, parents know their kids best and can recognize when something isn’t right,” says Kristin Wilson, Newport’s Vice President of Clinical Outreach. “If you’re noticing any of these red flags, get help for your teen right away.”
- Inability to function in day-to-day activities
- Sleeping excessively or not being able to sleep at all
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or speaking coherently
- Auditory or visual hallucinations, including ringing sounds or seeing lights
- Delusions, including feeling indestructible or superhuman
- Psychosis—detachment from reality
- Self-harm, expressing suicidal thoughts, or a suicide attempt.
What to Ask at the ER and What to Say to Your Teen
Taking your child to the ER can be confusing, scary, and disorienting. It can be easy to forget what you’ve been told, so parents should write down the name of the medical professional who examines their child, and take notes on what has been said.
Here are some questions to ask during a mental health emergency room visit:
- Can the hospital make a follow-up appointment for my child with a mental health provider?
- Is there a social worker or patient advocate at the hospital who can help me access care for my child?
- What are some of the signs I should watch for that could indicate my teen is planning a suicide attempt? (Learn more about this here.)
- Can you recommend community mental health centers or other resources in the area?
Whether your teen comes home after the ER visit or is admitted to the hospital, parents should make sure to take the time to have a private conversation with them. The most important messages to give them are that you love them unconditionally, you will always be there for them, and you will make sure they get the care they need in order to start feeling better.
What Happens After a Mental Health Emergency Room Visit?
Kristin explains that a teen emergency room for a mental health crisis can typically go one of two ways. Either the family is told their child is not actively suicidal and can return home, or the child is admitted to inpatient care because they have made a suicide attempt or are at high risk of doing so.
Unfortunately, due to the high number of mental health emergency room visits, many teens end up in what’s known as psychiatric boarding—waiting for days in the emergency room area for inpatient beds to open. Emergency room boarding of psychiatric patients has risen between 200 and 400 percent monthly in Massachusetts during the pandemic, NPR reports. Overcrowding in ERs is another reason to seek care for a teen as soon as symptoms arise.
Whether or not a teen is hospitalized, the solution is short-term. Whatever sent the family to the hospital in the first place still needs to be addressed. Even if a teen does get transferred to inpatient care after the ER visit, it’s typically for just a few days, enough time to stabilize them but not nearly enough time to uncover and heal the underlying causes of a mental health crisis.
It’s imperative, Kristin says, for families to seek follow-up care after a teen emergency room visit, in order to avoid repeated visits and/or a more severe crisis. For teens who were in treatment prior to the ER visit, the crisis may be an indication that they need a higher level of care.
Accessing Quality Care for a Teen in Crisis
Having to take a teen to the ER for a mental health concern is frightening for parents as well as their children. In addition, parents sometimes feel guilty and ashamed that they didn’t realize how much their teen was suffering. However, it’s helpful for families to think of this event not as a failure or an isolated instance, but as a necessary part of the healing journey.
After an ER visit or once a teen is discharged from an inpatient stay, the real work of recovery begins. Depending on the teen’s specific needs, current situation, and past history, residential or outpatient treatment may be the best next step.
Newport Academy’s Admissions and Clinical Outreach experts specialize in helping families navigate the often complex mental healthcare system, so their teen can get compassionate and high-quality care they need and deserve.
CDC Weekly. 2021 Jun; 70(24); 888–894.