A shocking half of American children are diagnosed with a mental disorder before the age of 18 and just over 20 percent have a serious, debilitating mental illness, according to the National Institutes of Health’s summary of the “National Comorbidity Study” published in 2010. Those findings certainly sound like there are an awful lot of sick kids in this country. A more recent surveillance report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined pediatric psychiatric diagnoses.
The CDC’s “Mental Health Surveillance Among Children — United States, 2005-2011,” is a summary of data taken from pediatric medical records across the country over time to determine how many had mental or behavioral disorders. The most commonly diagnosed disorder was attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, followed by other conduct and behavioral disorders. Anxiety, depression and autism spectrum discords were also commonly found. Adolescents were most often diagnosed with substance use disorders.
Some controversy exists over whether children are being overly diagnosed, overly medicated and permanently mislabeled as mentally ill when they are not. Many say they are normal children living in an ill society. Others say these children are being turned into chemical zombies. In any case, one sobering fact is certain: Suicide is now a leading cause of death in American youth ages 15 to 24; many suicides are committed by young people on psychiatric medications.
Relatively few of those children and adolescents who need help actually receive it, and there is an average delay of 8 to 10 years between onset of symptoms and intervention. This could be due to fear of stigma, mistrust of the mental health system, lack of awareness or lack of resources. Reducing some of these barriers is more important than ever, as the prevalence of pediatric mental illness and suicide rise.
The government does more than simply publish surveillance reports. Many new and existing programs are in place to address the mental health of children and their families. Programs available to California residents include the following:
- The California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) oversees welfare programs for youth and families delivered through individual counties throughout the state and their contract providers using the DHCS “Core Practice Model Guide.” For example, in Sacramento County, services include “prevention and early intervention services; outpatient services; case management; crisis intervention and stabilization services; and inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.” Some of these programs include child protective services/mental health assessment team, juvenile justice institutions and diversion programs, and both in- and out-of-county foster and institutional placement programs.
- The National Institute of Mental Health has formed an outreach partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to provide state oversight for the dissemination of science-based health information. This partnership aims to guide research, education and practice in pediatric mental health and to reach diverse racial and ethnic groups nationwide.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has offered programs, campaigns, public service announcements and other resources on children’s mental health, such as awareness days, over the past several years. Capt. Jon Perez, Ph.D., is the Regional Administrator for California.
- Mental health care services and substance abuse treatment are included under the Affordable Health Care Act.
Focus on Prevention
Programs and services may be of value, but prevention is the goal. Preventing suicide starts in the family and community. Part of preventing suicide is preventing substance use. Getting prompt intervention and treatment for substance use and underlying mental illness is crucial and can be life-saving. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and more serious mental illnesses should be identified and treated promptly.
Sovereign Health of California is a leader in the treatment of behavioral disorders, mental illness, substance use disorders and eating disorders. If you would like further information on our programs, please call our 24/7 helpline at (866) 819-0427.
Written by Dana Connolly, Ph.D., Sovereign Health Group staff medical writer