The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a profound toll on teens and young adults – with those between the ages of 13 and 18 being the most affected, according to a troubling new national study of medical records and insurance claims.
FAIR Health, a nonprofit that collects data for the largest database of privately billed health insurance claims in the U.S., looked at 32 billion records and studied those in the 13-18 and 19-22 age ranges.
The organization tracked month-by-month changes from January to November 2020, compared to the same period from the year before.
In March and April 2020, mental health claims for youngsters aged 13-18, as a percentage of all medical claim lines, approximately doubled compared to the two months in 2019, according to the study. In the same age range, claims for overdoses jumped to 94.91% of all medical claims in March 2020 and 119.31% in April 2020 compared to the same period a year earlier.
Claim lines for substance use disorders also spiked as a percentage of all claims in March (64.64%) and April (62.69%) 2020, compared to their corresponding months in 2019.
Also in the 13-18 age group, in April 2020, claim lines for generalized anxiety disorder increased 93.6% as a percentage of all medical claim lines from the year before.
Meanwhile, major depressive disorder claim lines increased 83.9% and adjustment disorder claim lines rose 89.7% in the same age group, according to the study.
In general, the 19-22 age had mental health trends similar to but less pronounced than the younger set.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on mental health, particularly on that of young people," FAIR Health President Robin Gelburd said in a statement.
"The findings in our new report have implications for all those responsible for the care of young people, including providers, parents, educators, policymakers and payors," she added.
Gelburd told MedPage Today: "We clearly see a reduction in people accessing medical care, particularly in March and April, but we see a continued utilization of mental health services during that period."
She added: "The need for mental health services persisted and in some ways increased during that period."
Her team also found that gender disparities in mental health services that existed before the pandemic were widened.
While girls accounted for two-thirds of claim lines before the outbreak, the percentage of claims attributed to females jumped from March on, reaching 71% in November 2020.
"These results are generally consistent with other researchers’ findings that women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with mental illness," the report said.
The study also showed a major increase in intentional self-harm claims as a percentage of all medical claims, rising 91% in March and nearly doubling in April 2020 compared with 2019, MedPage Today reported.
Females were up to five times as likely as males to be treated for intentional self-harm, the researchers found.
Comparing August 2019 to August 2020 in the Northeast, for the 13-18 group, there was a 333.93% spike in intentional self-harm claim, a rate higher than that in any other region in any month studied for the group.
Dr. Jess Shatkin of the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center said that while the data aren’t surprising, they "speak to something we’ve all been concerned about."
"We know that teenagers already have high rates of mental illness," Shatkin told MedPage Today. "Now [with the pandemic], their parents are starting to struggle, with relationships, jobs, food security. It just ups the ante. We already see vulnerability and this just makes them more vulnerable."
FAIR Health’s new white paper, the seventh in its COVID-19 studies, is titled "The Impact of COVID-19 on Pediatric Mental Health: A Study of Private Healthcare Claims."