February 11, 2019
2 min read

Half of US children with mental health disorders are not treated

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Photo of Daniel Whitney
Daniel G. Whitney

An estimated 7.7 million American children have depression, anxiety or ADHD, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics. However, nearly half of these children do not receive treatment or counseling for their condition.

“Mental health disorders not only affect concurrent health for children, but are likely to track into their adult years and can impede healthful transition and aging into and throughout adulthood,” Daniel G. Whitney, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “Gaps in getting treatment for treatable and/or modifiable conditions in childhood could exacerbate these and other health disparities later in life.”

Whitney and colleagues analyzed data collected from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, in which parents answered questions regarding the health of their children aged 0 to 17 years. Specifically, parents were asked whether a health care provider has ever told them that their child has a mental health disorder. If parents had been told, the survey questioned them on whether their child still has the condition.

Whitney and colleagues noted that they defined mental health disorders as answering ‘yes’ to the second question for depression, anxiety or ADHD. The survey also prompted parents to disclose whether their child had any treatment or counseling from a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric nurse or clinical social worker.

Infographic on the number of children not treated for at least one mental health disorder 

Of the 46.6 million children included in the study, 16.5% had at least one mental health disorder. The prevalence of these disorders ranged from 7.6% in Hawaii to 27.2% in Maine.

The researchers discovered that 49.4% of children did not receive treatment for their mental health disorders. Washington, D.C., had the lowest prevalence of children left untreated (29.5%), whereas North Carolina had the most (72.2%).

Whitney said that although there is room for improvement in getting children and adolescents into specialized mental health care, certain factors are “out of the hands of pediatricians.”

“For example, stigma about mental health disorders and seeking treatment, environmental barriers such as accessibility and affordability, genetic and/or behavioral predisposition, and parental factors can all play an interactive role in the development of mental health disorders and seeking treatment,” he said. “For pediatricians, recognizing the importance of mental health in overall health may help to improve their own practice. Based on these findings, some recommendations could be to incorporate mental health disorder screening, referral and monitoring for their child and adolescent patients.” – by Katherine Bortz

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.