Nearly 20% of children in the United States suffer from a mental disorder, and the number has been increasing for over a decade, according to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The report covered the topic of mental disorders among children aged 3 to 17 for the first time. The investigators found that childhood mental illnesses affect up to one in five children and cost close to $247 billion per year in medical expenses, juvenile justice, and special education.

An earlier report from 2009 reported that the costs of treating mental illness reached $8.9 billion in 2006, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Childhood mental disorders are defined as serious changes in the ways children handle their emotions, learn, or behave. Symptoms generally begin in early childhood, but some may develop during adolescence.

Often diagnoses are made during school years or even earlier. Earlier research has suggested that children with mental disorders were three times more likely to be identified as bullies

Mental health is critical to overall health. Mental disorders are conditions that can last throughout an entire life. Without treatment and early diagnosis these conditions can lead to problems at school, home, and in developing friendships.

The current report was developed in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). It outlines federal causes on monitoring mental disorders and provides estimates on the number of children with certain mental disorders.

The researchers examined data from several sources covering the period 2005-2011. The report also suggests a few indicators of mental health such as unhealthy days and suicide.

The report revealed that ADHD was the most prevalent current diagnosis among children aged 3 to 17 years. The number of kids with a mental disorder rose with age, except autism spectrum disorders – which were highest among 6 to 11 year old children.

Males were more likely than females to have ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, Tourette syndrome, cigarette dependence, behavioral or conduct problems, and anxiety. Boys aged 12 to 17 years were at a greater risk of dying by suicide than girls. Girls were more likely than boys to have depression or an alcohol misuse disorder.

Children ranging in age from 3 to 17 years had:

  • ADHD (6.8%)
  • Conduct or Behavioral Problems (3.5%)
  • Anxiety (3.0%)
  • Depression (2.1%)
  • Autism spectrum disorders (1.1%)
  • Tourette syndrome (0.2% among children 6-17 years old)

Adolescents aged 12 to 17 years had:

  • Illicit drug use disorder in the last year (4.7%)
  • Alcohol use disorder in the last year (4.2%)
  • Cigarette dependence in the last month (2.8%)

These findings suggest that mental health is a significant component of public health. The goal now is to develop improved methods on how to document children who have mental disorders, better understand these disorders, and implement and recommend treatment and intervention strategies.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald