Number of youths seeking mental health hospitalization doubled during COVID – report

Social workers’ survey finds long waits for assessment and treatment, increase in suicidal tendencies; union urges increasing resources

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image: an isolated child. (iStock via Getty Images)
Illustrative image: An anxious child. (iStock via Getty Images)

Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the younger population, with the number of children seeking hospitalization for mental health issues doubling during the outbreak, according a Tuesday report by the Israel Union of Social Workers.

The poll sampled 458 social workers around the country and found they had noticed a dramatic rise in the number of youths in mental distress while mental health services were failing to deal with the burden, leaving many to wait long months for treatment.

Among the respondents, 76 percent reported a rise in the number of children dealing with anxiety and depression, and 67% said there was an increase in incidents of self-harm among youths. Forty-four percent reported a rise in suicide among minors, including attempts, thoughts of taking one’s life or actual suicides. Over two-thirds, 69%, noticed a rise in emotional or mental difficulties among youths.

Nearly all social workers, 93%, reported a significant increase in waiting times for their patients to receive mental health care since the coronavirus outbreak began in early 2020. Among them, 45% said young patients had to wait over a month to be hospitalized and 25% said the wait could be over three months. According to 32% of the social workers, youths must wait 3-6 months for a psychiatric diagnosis, while 25% said the wait could be over half a year. For youths seeking mental health treatment in a local clinic, the wait can be six months to a year, said 41.5% of social workers.

For the specific issues of eating disorders, 45% of social workers said young people must wait at least a month to get treatment and 35% said the wait is more than half a year, in their experience.

Social workers’ union chief Inbal Hermoni said that cooperation between the health, welfare, education and finance ministers “is not working well enough today,” the Dvar newspaper reported.

Screen capture from video of Inbal Hermoni, chair of the Union of Social Workers. (YouTube)

She criticized the way decisions were made, saying they were not based on needs in the field.

Hermoni urged preventing a further deterioration in child mental health by starting a program aimed at identifying children suffering mental health issues and providing them with initial care, creating accessible care in the community, slashing waiting times for treatment, and “a massive investment of resources.”

The Health Ministry said that waiting times for treatment increased for all sections of the population during the COVID outbreak, though more so for children and youths, according to a statement reported by the Ynet website.

The ministry said it had reached an agreement with the Finance Ministry to broaden mental health services with special funding for HMOs and that details will be made available in the near future. There are ongoing talks with the Finance Ministry to increase the number of hospital beds available, the statement said, and following approval to fund more, some beds will be dedicated for the treatment of eating disorders.

The social worker poll came as Israel contends with its fifth wave of COVID infections, which has seen daily caseloads reach record numbers and officials — including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — telling the public to prepare for even higher figures.

There are nearly 40,000 students currently sick with COVID-19, and nearly 85,000 staff and students are in quarantine due to infection or exposure to a known carrier, according to the Education Ministry. The ministry remains determined to keep schools open as much as possible rather than ordering a sweeping closure and the use of distance learning as was done in 2020-2021.

Ran Cohen, the principal of a Tel Aviv school, told Army Radio on Tuesday that closing schools would be a “disaster and in practice a return to the disaster there was over the past year and a half,” when the education system was closed for prolonged periods and students studied remotely.

“The children returned to us from the lockdown changed from how we knew them,” he said.

A classroom at an elementary school is empty after Israel closed schools ahead of a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus in Tel Aviv, September 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Educational psychologist Liat Dotan told the station that there are now many problems with behavior, including thoughts of suicide, among children as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to curb the virus.

“We called it the post-closure tsunami,” she said. “Children should, as far as possible, find anchors of security and belonging, making efforts to return to routine,” she said.

However, on Monday, the Secondary School Teachers Association Ran Erez sent a letter to Bennett demanding that middle and high school studies be moved online and charged that the government has lost control of the pandemic.

While acknowledging the disadvantages of studies via the Zoom application, Erez warned against what he termed the current “anarchy and pandemonium” and said remote studies would be the “lesser evil.”

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