Mental Illness on Rise in American Children

The first comprehensive examination of childhood mental health by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that mental illness is increasing in children younger than 18 years.

"A total of 13% to 20% of children living in the United Sates experience a mental disorder in a given year", according to CDC investigators, who published the findings May 16 in a supplement of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The most prevalent of parent-reported current diagnoses among children aged 3 to 17 years was attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), at 6.8%. Depending on the surveillance system used, ADHD prevalence ranged from 7.6% to 8.9% in 2007 to approximately 8.5% in 2010 and 2011.

ADHD prevalence was highest among white and black non-Hispanic children.

Behavioral or conduct disorders, at 3.5%, were the next most common parent-reported current diagnosis in children in the same age group, followed by anxiety, at 3%; depression, at 2.1%, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), at 1.1%.

The prevalence of behavioral and conduct disorders was twice as high among boys as among girls.

Some 0.2% of children between 6 and 17 years of age had a parent-reported current diagnosis of Tourette syndrome.

In contrast to other childhood mental disorders, recent survey findings indicate that the prevalence of substance use disorders among adolescents between 12 and 17 years of age has decreased over time, to 6.9% in 2011 from 8.9% in 2002.

The prevalence of alcohol dependence or abuse among adolescents, for example, was 3.8% in 2011, down from 5.9% in 2002.

Illicit drug use was also higher in 2002 than in 2011.

On the basis of self-reported data, 8.3% of adolescents between 12 and 17 years of age reported 14 or more unhealthy days in the past month. This affected nearly 2 million US adolescents.

Finally, suicide was the second leading cause of death among children between 12 and 17 years of age in 2010.

Estimates also indicate that the prevalence of having seriously considered attempting suicide among students was 15.8% nationwide. Some 12.8% of students had made a plan about how they would attempt suicide, and 7.8% of students had attempted suicide 1 or more times during the year prior to a 2011 national survey.

"Surveillance is a critical first step in the public health approach to mental health among children," MMWR authors write. "As intervention and prevention strategies are implemented, surveillance is needed to continually monitor progress in reducing the impact of mental disorders and improving mental health."