Research shows childhood mental health disorders are common but underreported

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BERLIN, GERMANY – SEPTEMBER 16: A mother sits next to her three-year-old daughter on a park bench as the girl drinks orange juice on September 16, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Germany is currently debating the introduction of a nation-wide home child care subsidy (Betreuungsgeld), which would provide parents of one to three-year-old children the option […]

Treatable childhood mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression and ADHD, can have lasting effects into adulthood if not recognized and addressed early. However, a recent study shows many children with these conditions don’t receive appropriate treatment.

Vanessa Jensen, Psy. D. of Cleveland Clinic Children’s, did not take part in the study, but said the results are striking.

“When they looked at anyone who said that their child currently, or in the last year, has had one of these conditions, ‘have they been seen or treated by a professional?’ – within that time span. And they’re not even asking if they are in long-term treatment, but simply have they ever been seen for that disorder by a mental health professional – and the answer, is strikingly – not very often,” she said.

The study looked at data on more than 46 million U.S. children.

Results show 7.7 million children had at least one treatable mental health disorder – including anxiety, depression or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

However, almost half of these children did not receive needed treatment, such as counseling or medication, for their disorders.

Dr. Jensen said many times, children don’t get the help they need due to a lack of resources – which can vary from state to state.

She said often there are numerous barriers for families seeking mental health care for their children.

In addition to fewer available professionals who specialize in childhood mental health, some health care plans may not provide mental health coverage, or have high out-of-pocket costs, and these expenses keep families from bringing their children in.

And some families may not know where to begin.

Dr. Jensen said parents who suspect their child may have a mental health disorder should start by talking with their child’s pediatrician, because many of these conditions can be treated.

“ADHD, anxiety, depression and related disorders are very treatable,” she said. “Most of the time, with appropriate treatment, kids can go on to function quite well. And that may be with psychotherapy; it may be helping parents learn to manage things differently; it may be making adjustments in their school program; medication, or some combination of those things.” 

Dr. Jensen said, much like physical conditions like asthma or diabetes, children with mental health disorders can learn to recognize signs of trouble. 

By working with a mental health professional, children can learn skills early on to help them recognize feelings that require self-management or the need for professional help.

Complete results of the study can be found in JAMA Pediatrics.

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