Doctors report concerning child health trends: self-harm, anxiety, obesity

Doctors in D.C. are seeing more cases of self-harm, depression and anxiety in kids, and they’re sharing what trends are concerning them the most in pediatric health.

“Our children are in crisis and are literally suffering, not just because of learning loss but perhaps even more significantly the level of mental health,” said Dr. Joshua Corbin to D.C. lawmakers discussing the oversight of schools.

Dr. Nathan Beers testified that social isolation and virtual learning are creating a “huge mental health impact on our students.”

The pediatricians, affiliated with Children’s National Medical Center in D.C., testified to the council’s Committee of the Whole, which was hearing from parents, educators and professionals who work with kids on how DC Public Schools is moving toward reopening and what needs to change.

Corbin pointed to national trends that show the instances of child suicide attempts and self-harm have increased in hospitals across the country.

“My place of employment has seen a dramatic and significant increase in the numbers of children in the emergency department and intensive care unit due to self-harm,” he said.

Pediatrician Dr. Sarah Schaffer DeRoo, who works with children younger than 12, told WTOP that she has seen an increase in parents reporting a change in their child’s behavior, which she said has a mental health component. Anecdotally, she said, parents are reporting hyperactivity, loss of focus or attention, or children simply acting out.

“What they’re often concerned about is ADHD; they automatically are giving their children a diagnosis. But it’s so much more nuanced than that. And so what I worry about is that many of these children may have cases of things as simple as boredom. But also, maybe they are starting down the path of mental health diagnoses, such as depression or anxiety,” Schaffer DeRoo said.

Doctors have followed a number of other trends in children’s health as the pandemic changed how people live, including fewer well-baby visits, which in turn reduce the number of children getting scheduled vaccinations, as well as a drop-off in prescription renewal, which indicates patients may no longer be taking preventive medications, such as asthma controllers.

“They haven’t seen their allergies acting up. They haven’t seen their asthma acting up … And all of a sudden they have asthma flare-ups that are bringing them into the clinic, and they’re worse for the wear because they don’t have the everyday controller medicines in their systems,” she said.

Beers said he’s seen an increase in cases of pediatric diabetes and obesity, which could be attributed in part to a more sedentary lifestyle, brought on by online learning and restrictions on when and where kids can play.

“Children are having to spend hours on a screen to participate in their virtual learning. And then after that, parents have work responsibilities or other life responsibilities. And so children are then reverting to screen time for entertainment, to do their homework to connect with friends,” said Schaffer DeRoo.

Beyond the physical concerns around weight gain and lack of movement, Schaffer DeRoo said, excessive screen time can also affect a child’s ability to focus and interact with environments and other people.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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