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Mental Health Needs Of Many U.S. Children Going Unmet

Tue, Dec 9th 1997

WASHINGTON, MD -- A children's mental health report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that 20 percent of all children from birth through 17 years of age suffer from a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioural disorder, and nine percent -- 13 percent of all youths ages nine to 17 -- have a serious emotional disturbance (SED).

The report concluded children living in poverty appear to be at a higher risk for developing a serious emotional disturbance (SED), strongly underscoring the severe lack of appropriate mental health care and community-based services. The report, for the first time, estimates the number of children ages nine to 17 suffering from SED for every state, with each state ranked according to its level of poverty.

"The report is an urgent, wake-up call for all of us to recognize that the mental health needs of children, and especially those living in poverty, are a real, critical health concern for each and every state in the nation," said Michael Faenza, president and CEO of the National Mental Health Association. "We know that mental health problems in young people can often lead to school failure, substance abuse and even suicide.

"Tragically, too many of the millions of children in this country suffer from mental disorders which are unrecognized, misdiagnosed and undertreated. This report deserves the nation's strongest attention."

The report estimates that of the 33 million children and adolescents nine to 17 years of age, 3.5 million -4.0 million (nine percent to 13 percent) suffer from a serious emotional disturbance (SED).

SED for children and adolescents refers to a range of diagnosable emotional, behavioural and mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder conduct and eating disorders, among others, that severely disrupt the child's daily functioning in home, school or community.

Based on eight community-based studies of children with mental health disorders, the report provides a national estimate of the prevalence of mental, emotional and behaviour disorders in children and adolescents within a defined time period. Following are some of the findings:

-- 20 percent of all children from birth to 17 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. -- children living in poverty appear to be at a higher risk for developing SED. -- nine percent - 13 percent of all nine to 17 year olds have SED with substantial functional impairment. -- the estimated number of children with SED is a low estimate since there is not sufficient data to determine the prevalence rate in young children birth through eight years of age. -- only one-third of children with a serious emotional disturbance seek treatment in any given year from a mental health professional.

The overall conclusion of the report is that there is a large percentage of children who need mental health services, but whose problems and service needs are not being met. The report calls for an effective and integrative system of care in which all the systems that may impact a child's life -- mental health, juvenile justice, public education, social service agencies and child protective services -- work collaboratively to develop and improve both service delivery and financing.

"We must recognize that mental health issues are as important as physical health issues in the total well being of a child," Faenza said. "We must end the insurance discrimination against both children and adults and ensure that children have access to comprehensive and effective mental health services."

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