Mental health disorders in children

February 11, 2016

As educators and parents we

Kids running down a hallwayMental health in childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and in their communities.

What are childhood mental disorders?

The term childhood mental disorder means all mental disorders that can be diagnosed and begin in childhood. Mental disorders among children are described as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions.
Some examples of childhood mental disorders are:

What are the symptoms of childhood mental disorders?

Symptoms of mental disorders change over time as a child grows, and may include difficulties with how a child plays, learns, speaks and acts or how the child handles their emotions. Symptoms often start in early childhood, although some disorders may develop throughout the teenage years. The diagnosis is often made in the school years and sometimes earlier. However, some children with a mental disorder may not be recognized or diagnosed as having one.

Can childhood mental disorders be treated?

Childhood mental disorders can be treated and managed. There are many evidence-based treatment options, so parents and doctors should work closely with everyone involved in the child's treatment — teachers, coaches, therapists, and other family members. Taking advantage of all the resources available will help parents, health professionals and educators guide the child towards success. Early diagnosis and appropriate services for children and their families can make a difference in the lives of children with mental disorders.

CDC Report on Children's Mental HealthWho is affected?

Children’s mental disorders affect many children and families. Boys and girls of all ages, ethnic/racial backgrounds, and regions of the United States experience mental disorders. Based on the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report (Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: progress and possibilities, 2009) that gathered findings from previous studies, it is estimated that 13 – 20 percent of children living in the United States (up to 1 out of 5 children) experience a mental disorder in a given year and an estimated $247 billion is spent each year on childhood mental disorders.

What is the impact of mental disorders in children?

Mental health is important to overall health. Mental disorders are chronic health conditions that can continue through the lifespan. Without early diagnosis and treatment, children with mental disorders can have problems at home, in school, and in forming friendships. This can also interfere with their healthy development, and these problems can continue into adulthood.

Public health includes mental health

A comprehensive report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mental Health Surveillance Among Children —United States, 2005–2011, describes federal efforts on monitoring mental disorders, and presents estimates of the number of children with specific mental disorders.The report was developed in collaboration with key federal partners, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).Project to Learn about Youth PLAY logo It is an important step towards better understanding these disorders and the impact they have on children. This is the first report to describe the number of U.S. children aged 3–17 years who have specific mental disorders, compiling information from different data sources covering the period 2005–2011. You can read a summary of the findings here.

CDC worked with several agencies to summarize and report this information. The goal is now to build on the strengths of these partnering agencies to develop better ways to document how many children have mental disorders, better understand the impacts of mental disorders, inform needs for treatment and intervention strategies, and promote the mental health of children. This report is an important step on the road to recognizing the impact of childhood mental disorders and developing a public health approach to address children’s mental health.

Research on Children’s Mental Health

Project to Learn About Youth – Mental Health

The Project to Learn About Youth – Mental Health (PLAY-MH) is currently underway in four communities. The focus is to study ADHD and other externalizing and internalizing disorders as well as tic disorders in school-aged children. The project will provide valuable information that can be used for public health prevention and intervention strategies to support children’s health and development.

Study questions include:

  • What percentage of children in the community has one or more mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders?
  • How frequently do these disorders appear together?
  • What type of treatment are community children receiving?

This new project uses the same methodology as the original Project to Learn about ADHD in Youth (PLAY) project. Read more about the original study approach here.

Children’s Mental Disorders: A Journey for Parents and Children

Meet two families and hear about their experiences living with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Tourette Syndrome


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