Millions of children have mental health disorders while treatment budgets shrink

When feeling stressed out by the hectic pace of modern life, it’s easy to get wistful for the carefree days of youth—when it seemed the only thing we had to worry about was getting along with the other kids in the neighborhood.

But according to a first-of-its-kind report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on childhood mental health, those days are gone or may never even have existed for a huge portion of America’s children.

Analyzing data collected over the past six years, the report shows that millions of kids—as many as one in five—are currently living with some form of mental health disorder. Attention deficit disorder is the most prevalent condition reported, affecting more than 4 million kids nationwide, but other behavioral issues such as anxiety and depression also were heavily documented, affecting 2.2 and 1.8 million children respectively.

While it’s unclear whether or not the numbers in the report mean that these conditions are really more common in kids today, or if parents, clinicians and teachers are just getting better at identifying them, the bottom line is clear: the issue of mental health disorders in American children is too big to ignore.

suicide is now the second leading killer of teenagers in America

“This report really drives home the point that parents, health care providers and policymakers need to have more conversations about how mental health disorders are identified, and it needs to happen earlier to make sure proper health care is provided to children,” says Roslyn Murov, MD, director of Outpatient Psychiatry Services at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Childhood can be stressful, especially in modern times. Not every child is going to respond to those stressors in a healthy way and we need to be ready to support those in need, possibly in large numbers.”

The report also states that America now spends more than $240 billion a year on cumulative costs associated with mental health disorders—from medical care to special educational services—but in some cases, they lead to a far heavier social price.

According to current data, suicide is now the second leading killer of teenagers in America, with many of those cases likely tied to psychiatric disorders.

“The numbers cited are troubling, but for those us who work with this population, they are hardly surprising,” says Karen Darcy, RN, MSN, director of Boston Children’s Mental Health Advocacy and Policy Program, who along with four other organizations make up The Children’s Mental Health Campaign (CMHC), which advocates for an overhaul of the children’s mental health system.

“But this report is a step in the right direction,” Darcy continues. “It provides critical information that allows us to better understand the specific needs of kids, so we can create more care plans and better allocate resources. Having a current, well-informed scientific document demonstrating the seriousness of this problem will hopefully open a lot of eyes.”

Prior to the report, the only data available on national pediatric mental heath was outdated—by as much as 15 years in some cases—and failed to capture the increased need for pediatric mental heath care. That disconnect made funding for mental health care difficult to come by in some situations, often with troubling results.

“The CDC report says that in recent years, there has been a 24 percent increase in acute inpatient admissions for children with mental health concerns. But at the same time, Massachusetts alone has lost 18 percent of beds available to these patients,” says Darcy. “We can only hope that an increased awareness about how widespread these issues are and how serious the repercussions will become if left untreated, will encourage families and others to advocate for a system-wide analysis of necessary resources. We must ensure that programs to help this vulnerable population are protected.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Children’s Mental Health Campaign (CMHC), please visit their website. While there, be sure to check out the resources available to families living with mental health disorders, or learn how to get involved with the organization. The CMHC is a coalition of Massachusetts families, advocates, health care providers, educators and consumers dedicated to comprehensive reform of the children’s mental health system.

  • Rose McClean

    It’s very important to realize that today’s society is much more complicated, stressful, and hectic then it has ever been. We often forget that children, who are also apart of society experience these challenges as well. A majority of today’s kids are involved in an overwhelming amount of daily activities both inside and outside school. These activities can have a detrimental effect on their mental states.