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DENVER (KDVR) –  Pediatric visits to hospital emergency departments for mental health concerns increased by 31% for children between the ages of 12 and 17 between 2019 and 2020, when compared proportionally with all pediatric visit to the ED, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Beginning in April 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health-related ED visits among all pediatric ED visits increased and remained elevated through October,” the CDC study found.

For children between the ages of 5 and 11, the proportion of mental health visits to the emergency department increased 24% when considered among all pediatric visits.

Brave to ask for help

“One of the bravest things you can do is tell someone you’re lonely or you need help,” said Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, a child therapist who said referrals to her practice have risen 67% during the pandemic.

“We’re seeing how much the social isolation has really impacted them,” she said. “Spending a lot of time in their bedrooms, not wanting to participate in something the family is doing, dipping grades, lack of motivation, weight gain, no longer participating in the sports or activities they had been, poor concentration…those are the kinds of increases we’re seeing. We’ve always seeing these kinds of referrals, but we’re just seeing them now on a larger scale,” she said.

Ziegler said she has also seen referrals for younger children who are experiencing irritability.

“The number one tip is just: ask for help. Connect with others,” she said.

Students talk about the struggle

Many students told the FOX31 Problem Solvers this year has been a mental challenge for them.

“I had really bad panic attacks and anxiety attacks, so much so that I was talking about suicide just to end it,” said Ryan Lugo, a senior at Denver’s North High School. Lugo said she started journaling and talking about her feelings as helpful coping mechanisms at the end of last semester.

“If you can get yourself to just – it’s so hard – but give yourself that little push (to accept help), and just try to see what happens,” said Kat Papa, 20, a psychology student at the University of Denver.

Getting help

Papa attempted suicide in high school, when she was 16, after suffering with depression and anxiety for several years.

She said it is important to understand that the people who love and surround you want to help.

“I felt like I didn’t think that it could be possible for me to recover,” she told the Problem Solvers. “I definitely felt like one of my fears was, I didn’t want to bother or burden other people by opening up about it, but really, the people that you love just want to hear how you’re doing and they want to help you.”

“That’s a really scary but an important thing is to just talk about how you’re feeling. Lean on your support systems. Don’t try to hide it, even if it’s really hard,” she added.

Papa said she had been hospitalized a few times for suicidal thoughts before receiving intensive treatment at Children’s Hospital that, she said, was extremely helpful.

She said it changed her life.

“I didn’t think it would be possible for me to recover, but I had to take that chance. I finally got to a point where I was like, ‘OK, I know that I don’t think that this could get better, but I’m thinking about it logically. Everyone on my treatment team, my family, is telling me that it can get better. I’m going to try and see if it will,’” she said.

Papa said it can be “really scary” to be placed in a psychiatric hospital without knowing what to expect. It’s unlike breaking an arm – in which you expect to go to the doctor and get a cast to help the arm heal, she said.

“No one tells you what it’s going to be like if you need to get treatment because you’re suicidal, so I feel like it would be really helpful to kind of have a more open discussion. Help kids have a more general idea of – this is problem you might face, and this is the treatment you might get – because for me that was a real shock,” she said.

Colorado Suicide Rate

According to provisional data provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the suicide rate among kids between the ages of 10 and 18 may have increased slightly when compared with 2019, but the rates are not statistically different, according to Kirk Bol, the manager of the vital statistics program at CDPHE.

The rate of suicides among all Colorado residents in 2020 was very similar to the rate in 2019, based on the preliminary data.

Adult Self-Care

Ziegler said it is important for adults to make sure they’re paying attention to their own needs as well. Self-care is important, she said.

“You must take care of yourself,” she said.

For adults, that means taking a walk outside for 20 minutes, she said, or staying connected with others even if you cannot do that in person.

“You’re picking up the phone or doing a FaceTime with your own support system,” she said.

It is important to eat well and stay hydrated, she added. 

“You’re being hopeful and optimistic,” she said. “If you find, ‘Well, I don’t think I can do those things,’ then, maybe you go seek your own professional help.”


If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression, the following resources are available:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255): Speak with someone who will provide free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To learn how to help someone in crisis, call the same number.

Colorado Crisis Services Hotline (1-844-493-8255): If you are in crisis or need help dealing with one, call 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak to a trained professional. When calling Colorado Crisis Services, you will be connected to a crisis counselor or trained professional with a master’s or doctoral degree.

The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386): A 24/7 resource for LGBT youth struggling with a crisis or suicidal thoughts. The line is staffed by trained counselors.

Colorado Crisis Services Walk-In Locations: Walk-in crisis service centers are open 24/7, and offer confidential, in-person crisis support, information and referrals to anyone in need.

Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline: (1-844-264-5437): The best resource for readers to report suspected child abuse and neglect.

The number serves as a direct, immediate and efficient route to all Colorado’s 64 counties and two tribal nations, which are responsible for accepting and responding to child abuse and neglect concerns. All callers are able to speak with a call-taker 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.