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Boston Medical Center researchers report surge in depression among children of color 5-11 years old

Martha Irvine/AP/file

A research team at Boston Medical Center has identified a surge in depression and anxiety among children of color aged 5 to 11 during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the hospital.

The BMC study, published in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, found rates of depression and anxiety spiked among young children of color from 5 percent before the pandemic to 18 percent during the health crisis, the researchers said Tuesday in Health City, an online publication run by BMC’s public relations team.

The study also found a reduction in school assignment completion, increased screen time, and “caregiver depression” were also linked to poor mental health among children during the pandemic, according to the Health City piece.

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“Our fear is that the pandemic has led to a mental health crisis for both caregivers and children following the incredible stressors that COVID-19 has put on families,” said Dr. Andrea E. Spencer, a lead author of the study and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the BU School of Medicine, in the Health City article.

Separately Tuesday, Dr. Michelle P. Durham, a BMC psychiatrist, told a congressional committee that a crush of patients have arrived at her facility seeking mental health treatment since December.

“I have never seen our mental health care services stretched so far beyond their capacity as they are now,” Durham said in remarks before the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “Since late December 2021, we have had 30-plus patients in our psychiatric emergency department, more than four times its capacity, presenting with a much higher level of acuity.”

Durham said her hospital has expertise connecting “marginalized communities” to health and social services, and that BMC is in the “early stages” of implementing what she called a “housing first approach” in partnership with the city of Boston.

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The aim, she said, is to “get people living on the streets just steps from our hospital campus, oftentimes living with co-occurring mental health and substance use issues, housed first and then provide wraparound medical services and social supports.”

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration has worked to relocate hundreds of people who had been living at a sprawling homeless encampment near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard into more stable housing with treatment options.

“Our [BMC] system is also in the process of constructing an 82-bed psychiatric facility in nearby Brockton, Massachusetts, to address the shortage of in-patient psychiatric beds and increase our ability to treat the mental health and substance use needs of our patients from across the region,” Durham told the lawmakers.

She said the facility is expected to provide 56 in-patient psychiatric beds and 26 clinical stabilization service beds.

“We estimate that the project will involve a total of $27 million in sunk in startup cost, a barrier that the federal government could help lower to incentivize capital investments to expand in-patient psychiatric capacity,” Durham said.

The need is great, she continued, with preliminary CDC data showing that the US has eclipsed 100,000 annual drug overdose deaths for the first time ever, and that Black men have seen the largest increases.

“Even in Massachusetts, where we’ve seen population-wide drug overdose death rates level off in recent years, the death rates for Black men stand out in stark contrast, having increased an astounding 75 percent between 2019 and 2020,” Durham said.

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She stressed that communities of color are suffering disproportionately from COVID-19.

“And they are dying at disproportionate rates from substance use disorders, bearing the brunt of two compounding public health crises,” she said. “At the same time, Black men have comparatively low rates of mental health and substance use treatment. At BMC, we’ve launched the health equity accelerator to eliminate the race-based health equity gap by utilizing data-driven and community-based research to inform and change the way we approach care for Black people and people of color.”

Durham conceded that hospital officials don’t yet have “all the answers we seek” in terms of treatment.

“We do know that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and that access is strained across the mental health and substance use continuum,” Durham said. “That’s why reauthorizing funding to support states and localities responding to mental health” and substance use crises “in flexible ways is crucial.”




Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.