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New report says 1 out of 5 children has a mental disorder

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  May 20, 2013 08:03 AM

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img4_sm.jpgIn your average classroom of 20 children, four of them have a mental disorder.

That's the finding of a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's the first report to describe the number of U.S. children aged 3 to 17 years who have specific mental disorders. Using information from various different sources covering the period 2005 to 2011, they came up with estimates for what percentage of children currently have mental disorders. The "currently" part is important: when they say that up to 1 in 5 children have a mental disorder, they mean that up to 1 in 5 have it--and need help--now.

The report is sobering. Here are the top five:
  • ADHD: 6.8 percent, or 1 in 14
  • Behavioral or conduct problem: 3.5 percent, or 1 in 28
  • Anxiety: 3.0 percent, or 1 in 33
  • Depression: 2.1 percent, or 1 in 50
  • Autism spectrum disorders: 1.1 percent, or 1 in 100
You child knows these children. You child may be one of them. 

The report also had numbers for the percentage of adolescents with substance use disorders or cigarette dependence in the past year. These aren't the kids who occasionally get drunk or smoke a cigarette or a joint--these are the kids who use them enough to have a real problem:
  • Illicit drug use disorder: 4.7 percent, or 1 in 20
  • Alcohol use disorder: 4.2 percent, or 1 in 25
  • Cigarette dependence: 2.8 percent, or 1 in 36
Again: your teen knows these kids. Your teen may be one of them. 

And the report found that in 2010, suicide was the second leading cause of death among youth ages 12 to 17. You really don't want your teen to know one of those--or be one of them.

That's the thing: this does, or could, touch all of us. And not only are many mental disorders chronic diseases that children will battle for a lifetime, when they start in childhood they often bring family problems, school problems and social problems that can shape a child's life forever.   This isn't just about children; this is about tomorrow's adults. This is about who we will be as a society.

It's also about what we will pay as a society. The report estimates that $247 billion is spent each year on childhood mental disorders. Add to that the costs of caring for them as adults, and  lost productivity, and this becomes an extremely expensive problem.

So what can we do? The good news is that many childhood mental health problems can be prevented, or at least improved, by giving children the support and nurturing they need--and acting early and quickly if there is a sign of a problem. As a country, we need to be sure that there are enough mental health resources, and that everyone can afford them. But there are also things that each one of us can do.

Parents: It's really important to be aware of the signs of possible mental health problems--and to ask for help if you see them. It's also a really good idea to learn as much as you can about positive parenting; being a parent is really hard, and we all have something to learn.

Teachers, coaches, and others who work with youth: Learn the signs too. Speak up. Reach out. Work with families and mental health care professionals--do everything you can to help kids get what they need.

Health care professionals: Never dismiss a parent's concern--and always act on any concerns you might have about a child. Sometimes parents just don't realize what is going on--or are waiting for you, or anyone, to say something and help.

Teens: if you are feeling angry, sad, anxious or some other feeling that feels bad or hard, let someone know. You don't have to handle it alone.

The CDC's Mental Health page has more information and lots of links. Check it out; find out what you need to know--and what you can do.

Here's an infographic from the CDC:


This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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