When you think about childhood diseases, what comes to mind? Beyond common illnesses like measles, mumps, RSV and ear infections, kids can be affected, too, by serious diseases like cancer, diabetes and AIDS, of course. But the most common diseases of childhood and adolescence are, in fact, mental health disorders. They’re far more frequent than cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined, according to the just-released, first-ever Child Mind Institute’s “Children’s Mental Health Report.” The report, which combines results of numerous recent, relevant studies, aims to raise awareness about the prevalence of childhood mental illness, a problem that’s too often unaddressed.
Of the 74.5 million children in the U.S., a staggering 17.1 million are estimated to either have or have had a psychiatric disorder, and nearly half, it’s predicted, will have had a diagnosable mental illness by the time they reach adulthood (age 18). The most common psychiatric illnesses diagnosed in childhood include anxiety disorders (32% of adolescents ); ADHD and disruptive behaviors (19%); depression and bipolar disorder disorders (14.3%); and eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia and others) (about 3%). The Children’s Mental Health Report also includes autism spectrum disorder (1.5% to 2.65 prevalence).
Psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz, MD, the Child Mind Institute’s founder and president, puts these numbers in perspective this way: “Compare [those 17.1 million kids] to the seven million who have asthma, or the seven million who have peanut allergies or the 200,000 that have diabetes,” he says. “Unfortunately, out of the 17.1 million, a little less than 35% will ever get some help. That’s truly a tragedy and a crisis.”
The Cost of Underdiagnosis
Psychiatric illnesses often strike young: Half first appear before the age of 14. Despite the enormity of the problem, social stigma, a lack of awareness and understanding, and sometimes denial stand in the way of more children getting the help they need. If a child with a mental health issue doesn’t receive prompt diagnosis and treatment they don’t just struggle day-to-day — they’re also more at risk more for:
- Substance abuse
- Failing in school
- Getting into trouble with the juvenile justice system
Given the enormity of the problem and the impact on kids and families, the report goes so far as to call this issue nothing less than a health crisis. “The Child Mind Institute’s Children’s Mental Health Report will shine a bright light not only onto the magnitude of the problem, but also onto the value of tackling these problems head on,” says Dr. Koplewicz.
The report also notes that 22.2% of children with psychiatric illnesses are severely impaired by their illness before age 18, and that there’s a shortage of mental health professionals available to help address the particular needs of kids and teens. When untreated or undertreated, psychiatric illnesses, like any other kind of health problem, often snowball. For example, a child that experiences severe anxiety early in life can go on to develop panic attacks, separation anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, social phobia and even consider or commit suicide.
The Power of Getting Help
Just as with adults, treatment can help a child significantly. The trouble is, the report makes clear that relatively few young people are getting the help they need:
- 80% of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder do not get treatment.
- 60% of kids with diagnosable depression do not get treatment
- 40% of kids with diagnosable ADHD do not get treatment.
Treatment varies depending on what illness(s) your child has and its severity, but you can expect that your son or daughter may be put on medication and attend regular counseling sessions with a qualified mental health professional. For example, the most effective treatment for children with anxiety disorders includes a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medication (typically an SSRI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, such as sertraline, or Zoloft). Taken alone, anxiety medication is 55% effective in easing anxiety symptoms; and CBT, on its own, is 60% effective. But in combination, medication and CBT are 80% effective, according to the report.
For more information, or to read the full report, log on to the Child Mind Institute‘s site. If you know or suspect your child could use help with a mental health issue, talk to your pediatrician or health insurance carrier to find a qualified provider, or visit the Child Mind Institute’s Find Treatment page.