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Ombudsman: In Poland, children and teenagers wait months for psychological help. There is a lack of psychiatrists and psychologists in the public health service

HEALTH & MEDICINEOmbudsman: In Poland, children and teenagers wait months for psychological help. There is a lack of psychiatrists and psychologists in the public health service

“The rate of suicides and suicide attempts among children and adolescents is on the rise,” warns Dr. Marcin Wiącek, the Ombudsman for Citizens’ Rights. In his opinion, the psychiatric care for the youngest patients is in a crisis. According to police statistics, over 2,100 individuals between the ages of 7 and 18 attempted to take their own lives throughout the country in 2023 alone.

“We are observing an increasing number of dramatic situations, suicides, suicide attempts of children and adolescents. More and more patients from this group often use one word to describe Polish psychiatry, particularly child and adolescent psychiatry, and that word is ‘collapse’,” said Dr. Marcin Wiącek, professor at the University of Warsaw and Ombudsman for Citizens’ Rights, in an interview with Newseria Biznes agency, at the conference “Mental health of children and adolescents. Joint work, best solutions” held in Warsaw.

The Ombudsman’s words are confirmed by statistics published by the Polish National Police. In 2023, 85 suicide attempts by children between 7 and 12 years old were recorded. For the older age group (13-18 years), this figure is considerably higher. Last year, police statistics recorded as many as 2,054 such attempts. For comparison, in 2017, 28 children in the younger age group attempted suicide, with 702 such instances in the 13–18 age bracket. These figures show a dramatic increase over just six years. In 2023, 145 suicide attempts by individuals between the age of 7 and 18 ended in death, according to statistics published by the National Police.

According to the Ombudsman, his office receives many complaints about the situation in Polish childhood psychiatry, which are analyzed by the Expert Commission for Mental Health Protection operating at the Ombudsman’s office. The findings are then forwarded to the relevant state institutions.

“The problem is in schools. Teachers are often unprepared for the fact that children have problems requiring psychological intervention, psychiatric intervention. There are often no psychologists or school pedagogues in many schools, which is a huge problem. We also often observe that parents do not know or do not want to know that their child has a problem requiring care, requiring support from a specialist,” says Professor Marcin Wiącek.

He adds that there are also noticeable systemic problems and those related to the financing model of child psychiatry. The Ombudsman is also concerned about the way the reform of mental health care for children and adolescents is being implemented.

“Even though it is a step in the right direction, the coordination and cooperation are lacking, as well as the flow of information between various institutions. We have to remember that the child or young person is the most important in all this and cannot be the hostage of procedures and formalities. These issues should be sorted out, there should be a greater flow of information, a more intense dialogue between various institutions dealing with a specific child,” says the professor.

The Ombudsman admits that his office receives many dramatic letters from parents of children struggling with mental problems.

“Parents sometimes complain to the Ombudsman for Citizens’ Rights that there is a several months-long waiting period for a visit to a child psychologist or psychiatrist. In my opinion, this is clear discrimination against those families who cannot afford to use private health services,” says Professor Marcin Wiącek. “There cannot be a situation where a wealthy family with the financial ability to cover private care is in a drastically better situation than families who cannot afford it. This is absurd and negates the provision of psychological or psychiatric care, which should be provided without delay.”

Professor Marcin Wiącek notes that Poland has a deficit of psychiatrists who specialize in child and adolescent issues. This is a special field of medicine. Currently, we are talking about several hundred psychiatrists dealing specifically with young patients across the country. The good news is that the number of specialists is increasing.

“Unfortunately, there is also a downside – there is no increase in interest in working in the public health service. This is a systemic problem that concerns not only psychiatry but also has links to financing, with the financial model, where psychiatrists flee to the private sector or abroad and are not interested in working in the public health service. The same can be said for psychologists, for educators,” assesses the Ombudsman.

In his opinion, the deficit of psychologists and school pedagogues is also due to declining interest in working in public education. He identifies systemic and financial reasons among the causes.

Apart from the Ombudsman for Citizens’ Rights, the conference “Mental health of children and adolescents. Joint work, best solutions” was also attended by Marta Golbik, Chairperson of the parliamentary team for mental health of children and adolescents, an MP to the Sejm of the Republic of Poland. In conversation with a reporter from the Newseria Biznes agency, she pointed out that the not-so-good mental condition of children and adolescents is not only a problem in Poland. The alarming phenomenon is also observed in other European countries and in the United States.

“Today, we are dealing with a new kind of epidemic, the epidemic of depression, a disease that is about to become the most common disease in the world. And we must deal with this, it is also relevant to our children, Polish youth. The tasks of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, but also the Ministry of Social Policy is to prevent mental crises in children and adolescents,” says MP Marta Golbik.

The parliamentarian stressed that currently, inter-ministerial work involving three ministries responsible for the mental health of Poles is underway.

“There is a lot to be done in terms of education, taking care of a psychologist in every school, so that they actively participate in the life of the school community, spotting the problems of young people,” emphasizes Marta Golbik.

She also points out the need to introduce incentives for choosing the specialization of child psychiatry. In her opinion, it is also necessary to introduce certain regulations related to the professions of psychologist and psychotherapist. This is important among others to ensure the safety of patients.

“Years of neglect have indeed led to the fact that today we are witnessing a slight privatization of the psychiatry and psychological care systems, so it is currently the task of the ministries to work out solutions that will incentivize psychologists to remain in the healthcare system,” says the MP.

According to data from the National Police Headquarters, the highest number of suicide attempts among children and adolescents between the 7th and 18th years of life in 2023 was recorded in Pomeranian Voivodeship (405). This alarming statistic also highlighted the Silesian Voivodeship (295) and the Łódź Voivodeship (220) as other particularly affected regions. Fortunately, the vast majority of attempts did not end tragically. Nevertheless, such numbers give justifiable cause for concern. Especially as in 2023 alone, 145 young people lost their lives due to suicide. This is equivalent to almost six classes of 25 students.

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