Global rise in childhood mental health issues amid pandemic

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A child and his mother wait at the reception in the pediatric unit of the Robert Debre hospital, in Paris, France, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

PARIS – By the time his parents rushed him to the hospital, 11-year-old Pablo was barely eating and had stopped drinking entirely. Weakened by months of self-privation, his heart had slowed to a crawl and his kidneys were faltering. Medics injected him with fluids and fed him through a tube — first steps toward stitching together yet another child coming apart amid the tumult of the coronavirus crisis.

For doctors who treat them, the pandemic's impact on the mental health of children is increasingly alarming. The Paris pediatric hospital caring for Pablo has seen a doubling in the number of children and young teenagers requiring treatment after attempted suicides since September.

Doctors elsewhere report similar surges, with children — some as young as 8 — deliberately running into traffic, overdosing on pills and otherwise self-harming. In Japan, child and adolescent suicides hit record levels in 2020, according to the Education Ministry.

Pediatric psychiatrists say they're also seeing children with coronavirus-related phobias, tics and eating disorders, obsessing about infection, scrubbing their hands raw, covering their bodies with disinfectant gel and terrified of getting sick from food.

Also increasingly common, doctors say, are children suffering panic attacks, heart palpitations and other symptoms of mental anguish, as well as chronic addictions to mobile devices and computer screens that have become their sitters, teachers and entertainers during lockdowns, curfews and school closures.

“There is no prototype for the child experiencing difficulties,” said Dr. Richard Delorme, who heads the psychiatric unit treating Pablo at the giant Robert Debré pediatric hospital, the busiest in France. "This concerns all of us.”

Pablo's father, Jerome, is still trying to understand why his son gradually fell sick with a chronic eating disorder as the pandemic took hold, slowly starving himself until the only foods he would eat were small quantities of rice, tuna and cherry tomatoes.

Jerome suspects that disruptions last year to Pablo's routines may have contributed to his illness. Because France was locked down, the boy had no in-school classes for months and couldn't say goodbye to his friends and teacher at the end of the school year.