The number of children suffering from mental health issues in the U.S. is on the rise. Without early intervention, these issues can develop into more significant problems later in life.
Mental health issues may develop much earlier than previously thought. In the past decade, research has indicated that the number of children suffering from mental health issues in the U.S. is increasing at an alarming rate.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in seven children ages two to eight have a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder (MBDD). They also note that one in five children ages 13 to 18 will experience a severe mental disorder at some point in their lives.
Mental health plays an important role in a child’s overall health. There are many family, community, and health-care factors that influence whether a child develops a MBDD or not. Without early diagnosis and treatment, it is possible for children suffering from mental health issues to have problems at home, in school, and with forming and maintaining friendships.
Mental disorders are treatable, chronic health conditions that have the potential to continue throughout a child’s lifetime. Although the number of children with mental health issues has increased, the number of children seeking help and receiving proper treatment has stayed stagnant.
Why Are Mental Health Issues In Children On The Rise?
Mental health issues can affect boys and girls of all ages and ethnic/racial backgrounds in every region of the United States. There are a handful of theories about why the rate of mental health issues in children is increasing, including:
- smart phones/social media/TV shows like “13 Reasons Why”
- abusive family/home environments
- increased expectations of children
- inability to access treatment
Smart Phones, Social Media, and TV
Roughly 90 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds use the internet for social networking. Multiple studies have shown that using social media can activate the reward center of the brain and cause someone to want to use it more.
Eighth-graders who spend more than 10 hours a week on social media have a 56 percent increased likelihood of being unhappy, compared to those who spend less than 10 hours on social media.
Also, girls seem to be more affected by the negative effects of social media than boys. More than twice as many girls had reported being cyberbullied in the past year. While boys’ depression rate increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, girls’ depression rate increased by 50 percent.
Abusive Families And Home Environments
The risk of a child developing a mental health disorder increases when they are in abusive, threatening, chronically neglectful, or otherwise psychologically harmful relationships. In contrast, when relationships are reliable and supportive, children are less likely to suffer adverse effects of other stressors.
It is essential to treat mental issues in young children within the context of their families, homes, and communities. Children’s emotional well-being is directly tied to the functioning of the families in which they live.
Increased Expectations Of Children
Avital K. Cohen, a licensed psychologist, believes that there are a variety of factors contributing to the increase of mental health issues in American children. It is Cohen’s theory that many parents expect more from their kids, while at the same time try to protect their children from experiencing failure when they are young. This can cause them to miss the necessary coping skills to deal with failure later on in life.
Inability To Access Treatment
David Palmiter, Professor of psychology at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, believes that most kids who need mental health care don’t get it. According to Palmiter, about 20 percent to one-third of the kids who need get the care they need, but the rest don’t.
Of the 20 percent to one-third of kids who get care, most of them probably struggled with it for a few years before getting help, which may or may not be evidence-based. More research on the mental health issues that kids are suffering from is needed to provide effective treatment.
What Kinds Of Mental Health Issues Are Children Struggling With?
There are a wide range of mental health issues that children can experience. According to the CDC, childhood mental disorders can include:
- attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Tourette syndrome
- behavioral disorders
- mood and anxiety disorders
- autism spectrum disorders
- substance abuse disorders
Severe changes in the ways in which children play, learn, behave, or handle their emotions may indicate the presence of a mental health disorder. Symptoms usually start in early childhood, but can also manifest during teenage years.
A common mental health issue adolescents (ages 14 to 24) may face is major depressive disorder (MDD). While unhappiness triggered by events is not uncommon in adolescence, it normally goes away when circumstances change. However, individuals with MDD don’t recover when events change, their dark mood lingers and they may lack interest in things they used to enjoy.
MDD is diagnosed when negative feelings, lack of interest, and physical symptoms such as fatigue and insomnia persist for more than two weeks at a time. Onset of MDD usually occurs in adolescence and is diagnosed twice as often in girls than boys.
Warning Signs Of Mental Health Issues In Children
Children struggling with mental illness are not just unhappy, they have some form of chemical or structural imbalance in the brain that is causing them to act in a certain way. Possible warning signs that a child may be suffering from mental health issues include:
- feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks (crying regularly, feeling fatigued or unmotivated)
- trying to harm or kill themselves, or making plans to do so
- exhibiting out-of-control risk-taking behaviors that could potentially cause harm to themselves or others
- feeling an overwhelming sense of fear for no reason, sometimes accompanied by a racing heart, physical discomfort or rapid, shallow breathing
- stopping eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to lose weight
- exhibiting rapid weight loss or gain
- having severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
- repeatedly using drugs or alcohol
- exhibiting drastic changes in behaviors, personality or sleeping habits (i.e. waking up early and acting agitated)
- having an extremely difficult time concentrating or staying still that may lead to problems in school
- having intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities, like spending time with friends or going to classes
Children are more likely to have mental, behavioral, or depressive disorders if they are:
- between the ages of six and eight
- non-hispanic, white
- from poor families (living on less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level)
- from an English-speaking family
Effects Of Mental Health Issues In Children
There are many effects caused by the mental health issues children may suffer from. These effects can include:
- Increased suicide rate: The percent of younger children and teens being hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions in the U.S. has doubled over the past decade, CNN news reports.
- Incarceration: About 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness.
- Not finishing high school: The misunderstanding of mental health and its symptoms can lead to severe consequences. Thirty-seven percent of students (14 and older) with a mental health condition will drop out of school.
- Lifetime struggles with mental health: On average, the delay between the onset of mental health symptoms and intervention is eight to 10 years. As a result, 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75 percent by 24.
Perhaps the most staggering statistic relates to how mental health conditions have impacted the suicide rates of children and adolescents. In the past few decades, suicide has become the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10 to 24, and 90 percent of these deaths had an underlying mental illness.
Ways To Address Mental Health Issues In Children
It can be difficult to tell the difference between normal childhood behavior and mental health symptoms. If something doesn’t feel right, or a child is continuously acting out, it is better to look into it and not ignore it.
- Parents: Typically they know their child better than anybody else. If there are concerns about the way a child behaves at home, in school, or with friends, talk to the child’s health care professional.
- Youth: It is just as important for children to take care of their mental health as it is their physical health. If feelings of anger, worry, or sadness are making it had for them to function, don’t be afraid to talk about these feelings and reach out to a trusted friend or adult.
- Healthcare professionals: Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment based on updated guidelines is very important. There are many resources available to help diagnose and treat children’s mental disorders.
- Teachers/School Administrators: Early identification is important, so that children can get the help they need. Work with families and health care professionals if there are concerns about the mental health of a child.
How Brain Development Affects Mental Health in Children
The human brain is a remarkable thing, and it takes time to fully develop. The dynamic process of developing structural and functional connecting in and between different brain regions is directly related to typical child behaviors.
The limbic system which houses structures associated with emotion, motivation, and behavior develops early on. Imaging studies show that the circuits in this region may actually be more active in adolescents than in adults.
Increased sensitivity of the limbic system has also been linked to feelings of self-consciousness that make adolescents truly feel like everyone is watching them. These feelings usually peek at 15 years of age and decrease from then on.
Another highly rewarding sensation to the teen brain is peer approval. This is thought to be why teens are more likely to take risks while they’re around other teens, or even just because their limbic system has them convinced that their peers are watching.
Substance Abuse May Increase Likelihood Of Childhood Mental Health Disorders
Child and adolescent brains are more susceptible to the radical changes that can be caused by drug and alcohol abuse because their brains are not fully developed yet. The same changes happening in the brain that allow children to learn and thrive are also thought to be responsible for why it is more susceptible to drugs and alcohol.
Early, chronic exposure to drugs and alcohol can increase substance abuse in adulthood and is linked to the development of mental health disorders like psychosis.
Treatment Resources For Children With Mental Health Issues
It is never too late to get help for children who struggle with mental health issues, but the earlier they get help the better. There can be many influencing factors that lead to a child developing mental health issues.
The best way to combat these may be to talk openly with children about their feelings and to let them know that drug and alcohol abuse is dangerous because of how it can affect their development.
To learn more about the rise in children suffering from mental health issues, contact us today.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Children’s Mental Health, Data & Statistics
Child Mind Institute —2017 Children’s Mental Health Report
National Alliance on Mental Illness — Mental Health By The Numbers