Study: One in five U.S. children have mental disorder

Photo: Cia de Foto/Flickr

As many as one in five children in the United States suffer from a mental disorder in a given year, according to national data recently compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC study released last month was the first comprehensive report to assemble data on specific mental health illnesses among children ages 3 to 17 in the United States. The report, “Mental Health Surveillance Among Children,” included statistics on everything from autism to alcohol abuse and relied on data collected from various agencies between 2005 and 2011.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) topped the list, with 6.8 percent of children experiencing the disorder, followed by behavioral or conduct problems, anxiety and depression. The CDC reported just over 1 percent of children suffered from autism spectrum disorders, and less than half a percent from Tourette syndrome.

Among older children, 12 to 17, the report also compiled data on substance abuse. It found in a given year, 4.7 percent of adolescents had an illicit drug use disorder, with alcohol abuse at 4.2 percent. Cigarette dependence was reported at 2.8 percent in a given month. The CDC also reported that suicide was the second leading cause of death among adolescents in 2010.

The report, which also described federal efforts to monitor childhood mental disorders, comes at a time when mental wellbeing of all Americans has been in the national spotlight. In a recent speech, President Barack Obama pledged his support for treatment and prevention of mental illness, alluding to the grave consequences when left untreated. Many proposed policies are far more overt — with the terms “gun control” and “mental health” becoming inextricably linked.

Besides the cost in terms of human tragedy, mental illness among children is expensive in dollars, too. Taking into account the cost of health care, special education, juvenile justice programs and decreased productivity, the CDC estimated that mental illness in children costs $247 billion each year.

In budget-strapped California, policy advocates say the new CDC report justifies increasing efforts to provide adequate mental health services to the youngest members of the state’s population.

“Not treating these problems in kids comes with an enormous cost,” said Ben Rubin, a health policy associate at the Children Now, an advocacy organization focused on children in California. “The earlier you intervene, the fewer later problems those individuals have to deal with and the less likely they are to use other sorts of state services as they get older.”

Rubin said even though public programs — such as ramping up school-based mental health care — would require more funding up front, it would save the state money in the long run.

“Everyone agrees on the benefit in human terms,” he said, “it’s just unfortunate [that] those long-term impacts aren’t incorporated as much as they should be into the decision-making processes.”

Jamila Iris Edwards, the Northern California Director of the Children’s Defense Fund, also sees the report’s release as opportunity to push for reform.

With increased funding for public schools coming with the state passage of Proposition 30, and federal dollars coming for health care under the Affordable Care Act, Edwards hopes policy makers can acknowledge the potential overlap of issues.

“My big worry is that we’re going to miss the boat; we’re going to look at all theses issues separately and not see how they’re all really connected,” Edwards said. “You can’t just work on education without acknowledging health; you can’t work on health without acknowledging the justice system. The more that our systems work together, I think it’s for the better.”

Though the CDC study did not examine the causes of mental illnesses in children, Edwards says it’s crucial to look at the social environments where they occur and tailor treatments appropriately. For instance, the trauma-informed approach to mental health care has been gaining traction as an effective tactic for schools to adopt.

And sometimes all it takes is a good listener. Edwards recalls talking to a young man from a violent neighborhood in East Oakland about the issue. “He said, ‘I just want somebody in my school that I can talk to; I want somebody to ask me how I’m doing.’”

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