Originally created 10/03/00

Mental health problems underestimated

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- While most Americans believe mental health problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression and anxiety disorder can be diagnosed in children, most significantly underestimate their prevalence in children. The National Mental Health Association today announced the findings, based on the results of a new survey commissioned by the organization to assess Americans' knowledge of children's mental health issues. The survey is being released in conjunction with the National Institutes of Mental Health/U.S. Food and Drug Administration workshop Psychopharmacology for Young Children: Clinical Needs and Research Opportunities.

According to the survey, Americans believe that children's mental health disorders are real and diagnosable (only one in ten do not believe they are diagnosable). Yet, two thirds of respondents (66 percent) underestimate the prevalence of diagnosable children's health disorders by 100 percent-believing that only 10 percent of children have a diagnosable mental health disorder. The U.S. Surgeon General states that 20 percent of all children ages nine to 17 have such a disorder.

While more than three-fourths of survey respondents believe children's mental health conditions are treatable, only about one third said the disorders can be "very effectively" treated. In fact, children's mental health conditions can be effectively treated. For example, depression in children has an 80 percent treatment success rate.

"It is a major step forward that many Americans now recognize mental health problems do not just affect adults, but also children," says Michael Faenza, MSSW, president and CEO of the National Mental Health Association. "However, mental health problems are far more common in children than most people realize, and early detection and treatment can improve long-term outcomes."

A closer look at treatment

The survey also revealed a perception among Americans that mental health problems cannot be managed as effectively as certain physical health problems. Although the majority (62 percent) of respondents felt asthma can be treated "very effectively," only 39 percent, 32 percent and 31 percent of respondents felt this was true of depression, ADHD and anxiety disorder, respectively. "After a proper diagnosis is made by a qualified physician or mental health professional, the range of treatment options available for children's mental health problems are as effective as treatments for many of the most common physical illnesses," says Faenza.

Children's mental health problems can be treated with a variety of therapies, including psychotherapy and medication. A qualified physician or mental health professional can diagnose mental health problems in children. When a physician recommends a medication, it is usually part of a comprehensive treatment program, which includes therapy and/or behavior management.

"Unfortunately, media attention has focused negatively on the use of medication for children's mental health problems, particularly ADHD," commented Patricia Quinn, a developmental pediatrician in private practice in Washington, DC. "In reality, study after study has demonstrated that medications and therapy can make a world of difference to a child with a mental health disorder, and to their family. For example, stimulant medications have shown to be effective for up to 90 percent of children with ADHD. The key to success is to accurately diagnose and treat the problem early."

Interestingly, Americans also recognized that many barriers keep children and families from needed mental health treatment. Barriers commonly identified by the public include misunderstanding of the seriousness of a condition (86 percent), a family doesn't know they have a problem (85 percent), a family lacks adequate health insurance (84 percent), and a family does not know where to go for help (79 percent).

Facts about children's mental health

The multi-site MECA Study (Methodology for Epidemiology of Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents; 1996) estimated that more than 20 percent of children ages nine to 17 have a diagnosable mental illness, and more than 10 percent demonstrate significant functional impairment as a result. The 1999 Report of the Surgeon General on Mental Health concludes that four million American youth have a major mental illness that results in significant impairment at home, at school, and/or with peers. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in eight teens have clinical depression and approximately one child in every classroom in the United States needs help for the most common mental disorder of childhood, ADHD. Estimates of the prevalence of emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders among children in state custody (e.g. children in foster care or in juvenile justice facilities) are even higher than among youth in the general population.

Only a third of the children who need mental health care receive any at all -- and even fewer receive appropriate treatment. According to the Surgeon General, for example, fewer children are being treated for ADHD than suffer from it, and treatment rates are even lower among girls, children of color, and children receiving care through public service systems. The lack of appropriate mental health intervention can produce devastating results for children including disrupted social and educational development, academic failure, substance abuse problems, or juvenile justice system involvement.

About the survey

Sponsored by NMHA, the survey was conducted by Bruskin Goldring Research Inc. and was underwritten by ALZA Corporation. A total of 923 telephone interviews were conducted with adults (18 years of age or older) via the Bruskin Research OmniTel weekly national telephone omnibus over the weekend of September 15-17, 2000. The results were weighted to reflect the actual distribution of the adult population with regard to age, gender, education, race, and geographic area.

About NMHA

In conjunction with the workshop Psychopharmacology for Young Children: Clinical Needs and Research Opportunities, Michael Faenza, NMHA president and CEO, is calling for additional research into the causes of, the course of, and the treatment of children's mental health disorders.

The National Mental Health Association is the country's oldest and largest nonprofit organization addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness. With more than 340 affiliates nationwide, NMHA works to improve the mental health of all Americans through advocacy, education, research and service.

SOURCE: National Mental Health Association


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