According to the Center for Mental Health Services, “At least 1 in 10″ or as many as 6 million young people — may have a ‘serious emotional disturbance.’ This term refers to a mental health problem that severely disrupts a person’s ability to function socially,
academically, and emotionally.”

Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) concur, and report, “An estimated 1 in 10 children and adolescents in the United States suffers from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment. Fewer than one in five receives treatment.

Common Disorders Affecting Young People

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in young people, affecting an estimated 8 to 10 percent of children and adolescents. Types of anxiety disorders include phobia, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Major depression affects up to 6 percent of young people, bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness) affects about 1 percent of adults and is often first diagnosed in teenagers.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD) affects about 4 percent of youth ages 9-17 with between two to three times more boys than girls affected.

Conduct Disorders affect an estimated 4 percent of children.

Autism affects between 7 and 14 out of every 10,000 children.

Schizophrenia affects about 3 out of every 1,000 children.

Risk Factors/Contributing Factors

Mental disorders are caused by a combination factors including: Biological (genetic predisposition due to family history, chemical imbalances in the body, damage to the central nervous system) and Environmental (exposure to violence or trauma, extreme stress, loss of an important person, abuse or neglect).

What can Parents Do?

Parents find reassurance in the fact that every child is different, and there is a large range of normal when it comes to child development. However, behavior change in the absence of any apparent stressor (such as the birth of a sibling, parent’s divorce, etc.) could signal a mental disorder. The NIMH recommends parents who are worried about their children’s mental health consult the child’s pediatrician. If there is a problem, the child needs to be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist with expertise in disorders affecting children. These specialists will test the child, make a diagnosis, and recommend a treatment plan.

The treatment plan may include a combination of individual psychotherapy, family therapy, support groups, behavior management techniques, and psychotropic medication. There is ongoing debate among experts about whether or not to prescribe psychotropic medication for children because, in the past, ethical concerns ex-cluded children from Federal Drug Administration (FDA) clinical trials of many medications. Most experts agree the FDA needs to do more research on the use of psychotropic medications in children.

While the effects of many drugs are still unknown, medication is prescribed for children when the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Therefore, parents need to learn all there is to know about their child’s medication including the side effects and drug interaction precautions.

The NIMH reports the suicide rate in young people increased dramatically over the last few decades, and, by 1997, suicide was the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. According to data collected by the NIMH, between 1980-1996, the suicide rate increased 100 percent among children aged 10-14, and 14 percent among those aged 15-19. Males are five times more likely to be successful at suicide than their female counterparts, and gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youth.

Results of the 1997 YRBSS of middle school students further support this trend. About 24 percent of those surveyed reported ever seriously thinking of killing themselves, and 16 percent reported feeling sad and depressed for 10 or more days in the month prior to the survey.

According to the ADD Health Study, risk factors for suicide include having a suicidal friend or family member, and having friends who drink. Other reported risk factors include depression, alcohol or drug use, and aggressive or disruptive behavior. An adolescent is twice as likely to commit suicide if a gun is kept in the home. Protective factors include living with extended family in the home.

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