Numbers indicate pandemic stress wearing on NH youths’ mental health

Concord Monitor
Published: 11/28/2020 9:45:03 PM
Modified: 11/28/2020 9:44:52 PM

The number of children calling a statewide crisis hotline has increased by nearly 20% since 2019, yet another indication that New Hampshire kids are struggling to adjust to the new realities of the pandemic.

Last year, 341 children ages 12 to 17 called Headrest, the state’s only 24-hour crisis hotline for all ages. Already this year, 418 kids have called the Lebanon-based hotline in crisis.

Al Carbonneau, hotline manager at Headrest, said virtual schooling has been tough on the school-aged kids he’s heard from. Many of them are struggling with social isolation and harbor fears that they’re failing at this new mode of learning.

As challenging as online classes can be, Carbonneau said it seems to matter less whether the school is in-person or virtual and more about how often the school’s plans change.

“It’s the uncertainty,” he said. “That’s where a lot of the fear comes from. They want to make a plan, have something set in place instead of guessing what’s going to happen next week.”

Several statistics this year have pointed to growing mental health needs for the state’s youths. This summer, mental health advocates noticed a disturbing new trend — children made up a large portion of the psychiatric bed waiting list.

During the last peak in 2017, there was only one child on a 72-person waitlist. However, last month, children sometimes comprised more than half of the list. On Aug. 14, there were 26 children waiting for a bed in a psychiatric facility, about 65% of the total number.

SB 14, which was signed into law in June of 2019 with bipartisan support, proposed 12 provisions to improve New Hampshire’s psychiatric system for children. Most notably, it allocated funding for mobile crisis teams, a 24/7 hour service that dispatches a clinician and a “peer support specialist” — someone recovering from their own mental illness — to the child in need. However, mental health advocates have argued the state has been moving too slowly to implement these programs. More than a year after SB 14 was signed, the Department of Health and Human Services only just started the first step in developing the mobile crisis teams.

The impending mental health crisis isn’t limited to children. As the country approaches the ninth month of the coronavirus pandemic, counties across the state are reporting high volumes of mental-health related 911 calls. For many parts of New Hampshire, this mental health crisis is coinciding with an economic crisis, leaving many cities unsure how they will handle the increased need for mental health services.

“We have no resources whatsoever to deal with that problem at all,” said Shaun Mulholland, the city manager of Lebanon.

Carbonneau said, overall, calls to Headrest have decreased this year. He thinks this might be because his organization hasn’t been able to advertise its services due to COVID-19 restrictions. The calls coming into the hotline, however, seem to be more severe than past years — there are more referrals to the emergency department and mobile crisis units.

People just seem more desperate, he said.

“No one seems to know what’s going on with the virus or the country in general,” he said. “It’s scary.”

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