Millions of American children suffer from depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorders and an array of other mental health issues, and the prevalence of such conditions is rising, a new study shows.
Roughly one in five children experience a mental disorder in a given year, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The costs for health care, special education, juvenile justice and other services for people under age 24 with mental disorders total nearly $250 billion each year, the report shows.
The study is the Atlanta-based CDC’s first comprehensive look at children’s mental health in the United States. It pulls together information from numerous national surveys and databases that CDC experts hope federal, state and local agencies will use to focus research and prevention efforts.
“Nobody is really spared,” said study author Dr. Ruth Perou. “It affects all demographics, boys and girls, and across all regions.”
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, also called ADHD, was the most commonly parent-reported diagnosis of children ages 3 to 17 at 6.8 percent, followed by behavioral or conduct problems, anxiety and depression, according to the study. In 2010, suicide was the second leading cause of death among children ages 12 to 17.
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Experts say these problems are on the rise likely because of several factors, including better awareness and diagnosis, increasing rates of poverty that put children at risk, environmental toxins and other factors.
Perou said she hopes efforts by the CDC and other federal agencies to work together will be a model for states. She said the agency plans to continue updating statistics and present reports on adult and children’s mental health issues more frequently.
“These are our children,” she said. “We can do something.”
Mental health advocates say services for children with behavioral health problems have long been lacking in Georgia as the many institutions that deal with them – juvenile justice, schools and others – have struggled to coordinate care.
In 2009, nearly 140,000 children in Georgia had significant behavioral issues, according to a preliminary report by the Carter Center. More than 63,000 have extreme behavioral problems, the study shows.
Early intervention and treatment can dramatically improve outcomes as children become adults, said Dr. Thomas Bornemann, who heads the center’s mental health program.
“But surprisingly, we have very little data on what disorders currently are the most prevalent in our state and nationally to help identify and treat those most at risk,” Bornemann said. “The CDC’s new data is an important beginning.”
Bornemann will join CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden to discuss the CDC report and other mental health issues at the center’s annual mental health forum on Friday. First Lady Rosalynn Carter will also speak at the event, which is open to the public.
Historically, five state agencies including the community health and education departments have worked separately to address primary and behavioral health care needs for Georgia’s children, said Frank Berry, head of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.
“The future of serving some of Georgia’s most vulnerable youth will be managed through an integrated care approach among the agencies,” Berry said.
Georgia is greatly expanding community-based services for severely mentally ill adults as part of an agreement between the state and U.S. Department of Justice, which found that dozens of patients had been abused or died while in state mental hospitals. Services for children with mental illness are not included in that agreement.
The state’s success in rolling out new services for adults with mental illness has made advocates more optimistic about prospects for better coordination of care for children too, said Sue Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Parent Support Network.
“I hope that more people will understand the needs better of children and their families,” she said.