Mental illness in youth is a common struggle

By Melissa Healy

Los Angeles Times

Published: Saturday, May 18 2013 10:20 p.m. MDT

Jeffrey Eppard, 24, shows a drawing of his arm that shows his attempts at suicide during a class of the Awakenings Project that teaches art a sa way of therapy to people with mental illness at the Elgin Mental Health Center on February 20, 2010.

Zbigniew Bzdak, MCT

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON (MCT) — Go to a busy street in your community and count the next 25 adolescents who walk, bike, skateboard, stroll or saunter past. Odds are that two of those 25 kids (8.3 percent to be exact) would own up to having experienced 14 or more days in the last month that he or she considered "mentally unhealthy," according to a comprehensive report on the mental health of American youth issued this week.

Between 2005 and 2010, roughly 2 million American adolescents between 12 and 17 acknowledged that for more than half of the previous month, they routinely had felt sad, angry, disconnected, stressed out, unloved or possibly willing to hurt themselves — or others.

These struggling teens were slightly more likely to be girls than boys (10 percent vs. 6.7 percent) and were roughly twice as likely to be white non-Latino (9.6 percent) than to be Mexican American (4.9 percent). Roughly 6.6 percent of black adolescents owned up to having 14 or more bad mental-health days in the last month — a measure of what mental health experts call "persistent mental distress."

These distressed kids would be most likely to come from a household living above the federal poverty line — but not by much (from a household of three, for instance, with income between $20,000 and $40,000 a year). But those living in poverty or even relative affluence were only a little less likely to report they experienced persistent mental distress.

It should come as no surprise, then, in light of these statistics, that in 2010, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among American children between the ages of 12 and 17.

The burden of mental illness among American children is high, according to a compendium of statistics and data pulled together and released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In any given year, between 13 percent and 20 percent of American children from ages 3 to 17 experience a mental disorder — a prevalence rate that's on the rise since 1994.

Most common among those childhood disturbances is ADHD, which is believed to affect 6.8 percent of children between 3 and 17 at any given time. Surveys of parents suggest that oppositional defiance disorder and conduct disorder may come next: 3.5 percent of parents surveyed said their child had a current diagnosis. Roughly 3 percent of children had a current diagnosis of depression and 2.1 percent have anxiety disorder, according to parents. About 1.1 percent of children had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, and .2 percent a diagnosis of Tourette's syndrome, a disorder of tics or involuntary movement or vocalizations.

Roughly 4.7 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 acknowledged behavior in the last year that met the diagnostic requirement for illicit drug use disorder, and 4.2 percent for alcohol abuse disorder. An additional 2.8 percent were "cigarette dependent" in the last month (apparently now considered a mental disorder).

The experts acknowledge that rising rates of childhood mental illness may reflect more widespread awareness of conditions such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and depression — to name two of the most common mental afflictions — and with that, a greater likelihood they will be diagnosed.

But some researchers believe the rise in childhood mental illness may, in part, reflect changed "environmental factors" in children's lives — not just industrial pollutants but changes in the social environments of their schools and families, in the technologies they use every day, in the foods they eat. The rise of autism spectrum disorders has been linked to a child's prenatal exposure to car exhaust, but it's also been linked to the broad social trend of later parenting. ADHD has been linked to maternal smoking, but some also think the rise in diagnoses can be attributed in part to larger classrooms, increased pressure to boost test scores and reduced tolerance for disruption.

The latest effort to tally mental afflictions among young Americans draws from nine separate federal data-collection efforts that take place at regular intervals and measure a range of populations in health status, health-related behaviors and demographic factors. All have different methods, and the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released this week attempted to reconcile their slightly different findings.

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