Twelve-year-old Jackie Iseta’s life was in shambles before a chance encounter with the U.S. surgeon general’s son led to months of treatment and steady progress. It’s a story a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study cited on Saturday in a national public health report as documenting a crisis in mental health for American children and teenagers.
In 2016, youth mental illness accounted for nearly a quarter (24 percent) of the nation’s psychological injuries. These injuries left students with a higher prevalence of depression and anxiety than any other mental illness. In 2017, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of schools reported mental health issues. Only alcohol and tobacco use and diet and weight were cited in more schools.
While mental health issues are common and preventable, they are not always treated with the same urgency as injury prevention or heart disease and diabetes, explained the study’s author, Dana Christensen, chief of the Division of Behavioral, Social and Preventive Services in the HHS Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s division of Reproductive Health.
Researchers with the CDC published the first National Evaluation of Mental Health Injury in a National Public Health Letter. They looked at four factors that impact adolescent mental health – physical health, education, family and peers, and social connection – but did not see an effect in access to mental health services.
The study identified three subpopulations: those at highest risk of mental distress (aged 12 to 19), adolescents with behaviors that were contributing to mental distress, and those with the lowest levels of social connectedness.
When the researcher looked at those at highest risk, they found that mental distress was by far the leading cause of mental injury. The highest prevalence of mental distress was among 12- to 14-year-olds – nearly 5 percent of kids experienced severe mental distress. These children also had more trouble at school and less involvement in sports.
Among adolescents with behaviors that were leading to mental distress, girls were more likely to be at the highest risk.
Among adolescents with lowest social connectedness, girls reported more mental distress than boys, and exposure to peers who bullied other children was responsible for the majority of their mental distress.
To counter these risks, Christensen encourages parents to have an open and honest conversation with their child about the dangers of peer conflict and bullying, and to use communication technologies, such as social media, as an opportunity to discuss positive peer role models. Parents can help keep their child safe from peer conflict by setting up “safe zones” in their home.
And family therapy and counseling are vital for helping prevent mental distress. About 90 percent of students who experienced severe mental distress receive individualized treatment, and nearly all of these students recovered with the help of a therapist.
“Unfortunately, bullying and other risky behaviors are not being addressed in a meaningful way,” said CDC Administrator Robert Redfield, M.D. “We must continue to work together to improve mental health at home and within our communities. We must stop doing things as usual, and instead take up a leadership role in putting prevention strategies in place for these affected populations.”
Adapted from Inside Pediatrics