Home > Locked in and locked out: sequelae of a pandemic for distressed and vulnerable teenagers in Ireland.

McLoughlin, Aoibheann and Abdalla, Ahad and Gonzalez, Jade and Freyne, Aoife and Asghar, Muhammed and Ferguson, Yolande (2023) Locked in and locked out: sequelae of a pandemic for distressed and vulnerable teenagers in Ireland. Irish Journal of Medical Science, 192, pp. 1419-1426. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11845-022-03080-0.

External website: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11845-0...

Objective: The aim of this study is to investigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on teenage psychiatry referrals following crisis presentation to the adult emergency department (ED) of an Irish tertiary hospital. In doing so, this study will specifically examine the effect of COVID-19 on self-injurious behaviour, suicidality and substance use among older adolescents (age 16/17 years).

Methods: This is a retrospective descriptive analysis of acute adolescent psychiatry referrals assessed out-of-hours via the adult ED psychiatry service across three consecutive time points (during the months of March, April and May) from pre-pandemic, 2019 (T1); initial pandemic, 2020 (T2); and peak pandemic, 2021 (T3). Data were obtained via the hospital's ED-specific electronic database, review of original assessment notes and cross-referenced by manually extracting data logged in the on-call register.

Results: Crisis psychiatry assessments of teenagers during on-call hours trebled during the period of this study (p < 0.001). Although ED/crisis referrals initially decreased overall at the start of the pandemic, the rate of teenage referrals remained constant, before increasing as restrictions tightened in lockdown. The negative impact of COVID-19 on teenagers' ability to cope was found to be statistically significant (p = 0.001). Changes in rates of self-harming and/or suicidal behaviours were not statistically significant between 2019, 2020 and 2021 (p = 0.082). Alcohol misuse occurred in up to one-third of cases across each timeframe and remained virtually constant throughout the pandemic. Drug misuse decreased from onset of COVID-19 (p = 0.01).

Conclusions: To our knowledge, this is the first study to specifically examine the impact of COVID-19 on suicidality, self-harming behaviours, substance misuse and on-call ED presentations of teenagers in Ireland. This study demonstrates that coronavirus-related stress is associated with negative mental health sequelae for vulnerable at-risk older adolescents, as evidenced by a rise in ED presentations and on-call referrals since the onset of the pandemic. Presentation of increased numbers of under-18's for psychiatry assessment at the adult ED/general hospital indicates a deepening chasm between available and aspirational emergency (adolescent-specific) psychiatric care in the community. Mobilising resilience factors and maximising coping skills for at-risk youth will inform tailored intervention and support strategies along with adequate resourcing of services for vulnerable adolescents in the community.

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