In the months after Adam Lanza killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, politicians and civilians alike seemed able to agree only that the nation’s mental-health system was in need of thorough examination and reform.
An early major piece of that puzzle was released Thursday by the federal Centers for Disease Control, in the form of a comprehensive report about mental disorders in American children and adolescents, culled from years of data collection.
The study paints a bleak picture of millions of American adolescents struggling with mental disorders and found that less than half of those children are receiving the treatment they need.
The CDC report is considered the first comprehensive offering of its kind on mental disorders in American children. A significant percentage of American children—between 13 percent and 20 percent, or about 1 in 5 children—experience a mental disorder at some point during their childhood or adolescence, the report’s authors found.
An estimated $247 billion a year is spent on treatment for childhood mental disorders. The CDC study incorporated several studies conducted between 2005 and 2011, as well as new data.
“President Obama is asking [Secretary of Health and Human Services] Kathleen Sebelius to bring a conversation about mental health to communities all around the country,” Dr. Ruth Perou, one of the study’s authors, told The Daily Beast.
The research shows just how much work must be done in diagnosing and managing widespread mental disorders in children and adolescents that often remain untreated into adulthood.
An estimated 4.2 million American children have attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder, 2.2 million have behavioral or conduct problems, 1.8 million have anxiety disorders, and 1.3 million suffer from depression.
Millions of American adolescents also struggle with substance-abuse issues: 1.2 million have an illicit-drug-use disorder; 1 million have an alcohol-use disorder; and 691,000 are dependent on cigarettes.
Six hundred seventy-eight thousand children have autism spectrum disorders, and 99,000 have Tourette syndrome.
Perou says her team of researchers also found that ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and bipolar disorders in American children and adolescents have increased over the last two decades, along with drug use. Substance-abuse disorders, however, have not increased among children, teenagers, and adolescents.
ADHD is the most prevalent current diagnosis in American children ages 3 to 17.
The study broke down gender differences in mental disorders, finding that boys were more likely than girls to have ADHD, behavioral, or conduct problems, and autism spectrum disorders. Girls were likely to have depression or alcohol-abuse problems.
Boys between 12 and 17 were more likely than their female peers to commit suicide, but suicide is a major public-health problem for adolescents of both sexes. It was the second-leading cause of death for 12- to 17-year-olds, according to data from 2010.
The troubling data have researchers exploring ways for the federal government to help keep track of the severity of various mental disorders and encourage early recognition and treatment.
Perou says the CDC will continue ongoing collection of data about mental-health issues in children and use that data to drive action and treatment. The information comes largely from the children being studied, as well as from their parents.
As part of the government’s effort to raise awareness about mental disorders, Perou says she and her team are hoping to continue to produce reports on mental health on a periodic basis.
She says the CDC has focused recently on the factors that influence ADHD and hyperactivity in children, what behaviors are typically associated with the disorders, and their effects on the overall health of children. Suicide prevention is another top priority, Perou says, along with preventing behavioral issues in toddlers and young children.
While a great deal of research is left to be done on children’s mental health, Perou says the CDC report is intended largely to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of mental-health issues in children that so often go untreated.
“This report is a reflection of what’s happening in the nation as a whole,” she says. “We’re finally opening a dialogue on mental health.”