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Hundreds of children are presenting to emergency right now. Here's what we know.

This post deals with suicide and might be triggering for some readers.

For a 10-year-old child living in Australia, the COVID-19 pandemic has been happening for 15 per cent of their life. 

And as the Delta variant refuses to loosen its grip on our country, the mental health crisis caused by ongoing lockdowns, particularly among younger Australians, is growing. 

As Dr Ruth Vine, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health wrote in an opinion piece on the Australian government website, "Australia is facing one of the most significant mental health challenges in our history."

She noted that there had been a particular increase in younger people presenting in distress, something which has been compounded by feelings of helplessness and isolation. 

Watch: How to tell if lockdowns are affecting your children. Post continues after video.


Video via ABC 7:30, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMn36unAqZo

Last week The Australian got its hands on a confidential Victorian government report that showed an average of 342 children, aged up to 17, were presenting to emergency departments every week suffering mental health emergencies. 

The 16-page document revealed an average of 156 teens a week were rushed to hospital after self-harming and suffering suicidal ideation, an 88 per cent increase on last year.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports NSW emergency department visits for self-harm and suicidal ideation are up 31 per cent for children and teenagers compared with last year.

As Professor Tim Soutphommasane, Director of Culture Strategy at the University of Sydney told Mamamia's daily news podcast The Quicky, "One of my colleagues at the University of Sydney who is a clinician at Westmead Hospital and who works as a pediatrician said to me this week, he's finding more children presenting to him in his emergency department with anxiety than he is with children presenting with COVID symptoms."

The risk of Delta to children has been of utmost concern in recent weeks and months, as it's become apparent that kids are contracting this variant more than any others. 

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But as infectious diseases epidemiologist Dr Meru Steel, told The Quicky, "Yes, younger people are getting infected more with this particular variant, we're seeing outbreaks in schools, which is raising the question 'are children ending up in hospital?' But when you actually look at the national data, and a large majority of this at the moment is coming from NSW, and increasingly Victoria, what you can see is that 10-year-old children, only make up about 2.5 per cent in the hospital, and that's a proportion of all cases. So a tiny proportion. So the numbers might seem a lot but what we're seeing is they are not getting severely ill."

Instead, mental health is proving a far greater immediate issue for Australia's youth.

In 2020, Kids Helpline received 38 per cent more first-time mental health contacts from children and young people across all age groups than in 2019. The service attributes the increase to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Summer bushfires. 

The statistics remain on the upwards trajectory in 2021. Calls and web contacts to the service are up by one third in August compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

"Young children presented with worries, fear, sadness, loss and grief," said Kids Helpline’s Project Manager Leo Hede.

"Some contacted us for support around their fears for the future – either their own or for their family or parents. And younger children were concerned things may not go back to normal."

56 per cent of the calls in 2020 were from those aged 13-18, however Kids Helpline noted that responses to five to nine-year-olds, even though they only represented 17 per cent, did increase by more than 80 percent compared to the 2019 data. 

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According to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, preliminary figures from QLD, NSW and Victoria show there hasn't been any evidence of any increase in suicide deaths in 2020 or 2021 relative to previous years. However, there has been a rise in teenage girls taking their own lives, with eight deaths in the first seven months of this year. The coroner's report notes, "while there may be short-term fluctuations in suicide frequencies within particular groups, they usually even out over time," reports 7News.

Former teacher, child psychologist and Founder of Parentshop, Michael Hawton, explained to Mamamia that with an adult, anxiety is something over which we can exercise some control. 

"Children though, are dependent on their parents and teachers, constantly seeking out clues about how to manage their own stress by what they observe in the adults around them.

"If they see their mum or dad having accentuated responses to stresses they too will be affected as a child's coping mechanism is reflected in what they see in the people around them."

As adults' mental health suffers, so too does children's. But right now lockdowns are an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19. With our vaccination rates not high enough yet, we have no choice but to keep at-risk communities at home to help our health systems keep on top of the demand. In NSW, we're already seeing hospitals start to buckle under the pressure of rising cases.  

As Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has acknowledged, he is acutely aware of the dual crisis.

"These are absolutely tragic circumstances but I've been asked this question a hundred times. It's always the same answer. That the alternative is that this goes on for longer and it's harsher, or we suffer hundreds of deaths, literally hundreds of deaths from coronavirus. And they would be deaths in families that have young people, that have grandparents, parents, there have been millions of people orphaned by coronavirus around the world." 

But as we wait for vaccination rates to rise from the safety of lockdown, mental health specialists are calling on the relevant governments to offer more support. 

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National Children's Commissioner Anne Hollands has told ABC's 7:30 she thinks Australia might need a COVID-19 recovery plan specifically for children that, "goes across portfolios and jurisdictions and looks at all the areas of a child's life and the needs of the families that are raising them."

The federal government, however, has been reluctant to commit to any child-focused recovery plan, and instead said it's up to the states to reopen schools. 

Mr Hawton would like to see the government providing greater access to additional 'fit for purpose' child mental health resources. 

"Mental health professionals are saying that this crisis requires a response. In my experience, the way that governments tend to respond to these problems is to send more people (mental health professionals, counsellors) out into the field - a bit like sending soldiers onto the battlefield. However, this may or may not be the best way to address what appears to be increases in child mental health problems," he explained.

In the meantime, Hawton has two main pieces of advice that you can implement with your children today. 

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"Try to do less reassuring or less brushing-over children’s feelings. While reassuring may have a short-term benefit of shifting your child’s attention away from a negative emotion, it can also ‘steal the moment’ from them. You can acknowledge what they are experiencing. And it’s worth noting that ‘acknowledgment is not agreement’," he told Mamamia.

"When it comes to what you should do more of, that should be centred around helping them to be better stress managers. When a psychologist works with a child for an anxiety problem, the psychologist would challenge your child to manage anxiety by asking them to learn problem-solving skills, helping to learn to talk to themselves differently.

"As a parent, you can help your child to do this, too, helping to create in them a sense that they will be able to face normal challenges." 

As Professor Sharon Goldfeld, from Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital told 7:30, if your child is really withdrawing, really not talking, crying a lot and verbalising a high level of anxiety, they are signs it's time to seek some professional help. 

The key to getting out of lockdowns is vaccination. Find out about how you can get vaccinated here.

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online,  here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Kid's Helpline is available on 1800 551 800.

Feature image: Getty.

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