Facts on Children’s Mental Health in America

The reports by the U.S. Surgeon General and the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health offer great hope to the millions of children and adolescents living with mental illness and their families. Through appropriate identification, evaluation, and treatment, children and adolescents living with mental illness can lead productive lives. They can achieve success in school, in work and in family life. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of children with mental disorders fail to be identified, lack access to treatment or supports and thus have a lower quality of life. Stigma persists and millions of young people in this country are left behind.

  • Four million children and adolescents in this country suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school and with peers. Of children ages 9 to 17, 21 percent have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment.
  • Half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age . Despite effective treatments, there are long delays, sometimes decades, between the first onset of symptoms and when people seek and receive treatment. An untreated mental disorder can lead to a more severe, more difficult to treat illness and to the development of co-occurring mental illnesses.
  • In any given year, only 20 percent of children with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services.

Anxiety disorders were the most common condition (31.9%), followed by behavior disorders (19.1%), mood disorders (14.3%), and substance use disorders (11.4%), with approximately 40% of those with one class of disorder also meeting criteria for another class of lifetime disorder. The overall prevalence of disorders with severe impairment and/or distress was 22.2%; (11.2% with mood disorders; 8.3% with anxiety disorders; 9.6% behavior disorders). The median age of onset for disorder classes was earliest for anxiety (6 years), followed by 11 years for behavior, 13 years for mood, and 15 years for substance use disorders.

These findings provide the first prevalence data on a broad range of mental disorders in a nationally representative sample of U.S. adolescents. Approximately one in every 4–5 youth in the U.S. meets criteria for a mental disorder with severe impairment across their lifetime. The likelihood that common mental disorders in adults first emerge in childhood and adolescence highlights the need for a transition from the common focus on treatment of U.S. youth to that of prevention and early intervention.

The Surgeon General estimates that 6.5 million emotionally disturbed and 3.5 million severely disturbed children are not getting the help they need (U.S. Public Health Service, 2000).

Few families in the United States are untouched by mental illness. According to current estimates, at least one in five people has a diagnosable mental disorder during the course of a year. This includes adults as well as children. The prevalence of mental health disorders is defined as the number of people with a disorder that are present in the general population. This is usually expressed as a certain number per thousand people or a percentage.

Based on the 2000 US Census Report, InCrisis estimates there are 39.4 million children 12 to 17 year old in the US today. The MECA Study (Methodology for Epidemiology of Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents) estimated that almost 8.4 million of U.S. children ages 9 to 17 had a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder associated with at least minimum impairment (Table 1). This translates to a prevalence of almost 21% or 1 out of five children. When the diagnostic criteria used to estimate the prevalence required the presence of significant functional impairment, estimates dropped to 11 percent. This estimate translates into a total of 4.3 million youth who suffer from a mental illness that results in significant impairments at home, at school and with peers. Finally, when extreme functional impairment is the criterion, the estimates dropped to 5 percent. This means there are 2 million children in the U.S. with extremely severe functional impairments.


Consequences of Untreated Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents:

Many of the signs and symptoms of suicidal feelings are similar to those of depression.
Parents should be aware of the following signs of adolescents who may try to kill themselves:
A teenager who is planning to commit suicide may also:
School Failure
Juvenile and Criminal Justice Involvement
Higher Health Care Utilization