Kids Hospitalized For Injuries Are More Likely To Have Mental Health Issues, New Study Finds

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As a parent, I am in a constant state of worry over my son's sense of adventure. Being an accident-prone person, I know how easily a simple exploration of a playground can turn into a painful face plant. So I am always on edge when he's running around. But it's not just the severity of an unintentional injury that scares me; it's also the long-lasting effects of that physical trauma. That's because new research shows hospitalized kids have higher rates of mental illness than children who didn't end up in the emergency over a bad accident.

A new study published in The Journal Of Pediatrics on Monday found that children, from infancy to 18 years old, who have been hospitalized because of an unintentional injury —think car accidents or burns — are significantly more likely to have issues with mental illness, according to U.S. News & World Report. In particular, researchers from Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, analyzed data from June 2005 through May 2015 of kids enrolled in the facility's managed-Medicaid program, and learned that young ones who've spent time in the hospital because of a serious injury had, on average, a 63 percent increase in mental health diagnoses, the study's findings shows. What's more: Researchers also discovered a 155 percent increased in medications prescribed to injured children to treat a mental illness.

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The mental illness risk, however, wasn't the same across the board. The researchers found that kids under age 4 who suffered from burns, as well as youth of all ages with head injuries, had the greatest risk of being diagnosed with a mental illness after injury, according to MedicalXpress. The uptick in rates were most significant among conditions related to stress, such as eating disorders, sleep disorders, adjustment disorders, and disruptive behavior disorders, according to MedicalXpress.

Lead study author, Dr. Julie Leonard, associate director of the Center for Pediatric Trauma Research at Nationwide Children's, told U.S. News & World Report that there's a lack of reliable testing methods when it comes to screening kids for mental health issues. "So we're reliant on what parents tell us about their behavior," she said, according to U.S. News.

Leonard further explained to Romper in an email interview:

Parents are the best gauge of their children’s behavior. If there are changes in how your child is acting – anything suspicious like changes in mood, withdrawing from friends or activities they normally enjoy, bad grades or missed homework – parents should check in with their child’s pediatrician or mental health provider.

Although parents may be the best judge of their kid's actions and moods, doctors still need to be cognizant of their young patient's mental health needs. She told Romper:

All health care providers need to be aware of the increased mental health needs in children who’ve experienced a traumatic injury. Families may not always follow-up with the healthcare providers that treated the child initially. They may go to their regular pediatrician or family physician.
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She continued:

If a healthcare provider knows a child has experienced a traumatic injury they should screen the patient for mental health needs as part of standard follow-up care.

This is not the only research to make an association between injury and mental health in youth. A 2016 study published in PLOS Medicine found that children who suffer head injuries have a higher risk of poor mental health as adults, and are more likely to die prematurely. That same year, research released by the Australian Psychological Society showed that being admitted to the hospital can cause lasting distress and mental trauma in kids.

But it's not just health care providers who need to remain vigilant about these outcomes. Researchers from Nationwide Children's Hospital also press parents to be aware of their child's behavior and actions, and to reach out to their doctor with any concerns.

Leonard told Romper:

We encourage all healthcare providers and parents to look for mental health symptoms after an injury event and refer families for mental health services when needed.

By being aware and proactive, parents can increase their child's chances of receiving the necessary treatment. In that end, that means offsetting or minimizing any negative effects of hospitalization that occurred by no fault of their own.