Children's Mental Health Facts
Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Are Real
Young people can have mental, emotional, and behavioral problems that are
real, painful, and costly. These problems, often called "disorders,"
are sources of stress for children and their families, schools, and communities.
The number of young people and their families who are affected by mental,
emotional, and behavioral disorders is significant. It is estimated that as many
as one in five children and adolescents may have a mental health disorder that
can be identified and require treatment.
Mental health disorders in children and adolescents are caused by biology,
environment, or a combination of the two. Examples of biological factors are
genetics, chemical imbalances in the body, and damage to the central nervous
system, such as a head injury. Many environmental factors also can affect mental
health, including exposure to violence, extreme stress, and the loss of an
Families and communities, working together, can help children and adolescents
with mental disorders. A broad range of services is often necessary to meet the
needs of these young people and their families.
Below are descriptions of particular mental, emotional, and behavioral
disorders that may occur during childhood and adolescence. All can have a
serious impact on a child's overall health. Some disorders are more common than
others, and conditions range from mild to severe. Often, a child has more than
one disorder (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999).
Young people who experience excessive fear, worry, or uneasiness may have an
anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are among the most common of childhood
disorders. According to one study of 9- to 17-year-olds, as many as 13 of every
100 young people have an anxiety disorder (U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, 1999). Anxiety disorders include:
- Phobias, which are unrealistic and overwhelming fears of objects or
- Generalized anxiety disorder, which causes children to demonstrate a
pattern of excessive, unrealistic worry that cannot be attributed to any recent
- Panic disorder, which causes terrifying "panic attacks"
that include physical symptoms, such as a rapid heartbeat and dizziness. For more,
please read the Panic Disorder article.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder, which causes children to become
"trapped" in a pattern of repeated thoughts and behaviors, such as
counting or hand washing. For more, please read the
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder FAQs article.
- Posttraumatic stress disorder, which causes a pattern
of flashbacks and other symptoms and occurs in children who have experienced a
psychologically distressing event, such as abuse, being a victim or witness of
violence, or exposure to other types of trauma such as wars or natural
disasters. For more, please read the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder article.
Many people once believed that severe depression did not occur in childhood.
Today, experts agree that severe depression can occur at any age. Studies show
that two of every 100 children may have major depression, and as many as eight
of every 100 adolescents may be affected (National Institutes of Health, 1999).
The disorder is marked by changes in:
- Emotions: Children often feel sad, cry, or feel worthless.
- Motivation: Children
lose interest in play activities, or schoolwork declines.
- Physical well-being: Children
may experience changes in appetite or sleeping patterns and may have vague
- Thoughts: Children believe they are ugly, unable to do
anything right, or that the world or life is hopeless.
It also is important for
parents and caregivers to be aware that some children and adolescents with
depression may not value their lives, which can put them at risk for suicide. For more,
please read the Depression and Suicide articles.
Children and adolescents who demonstrate exaggerated mood swings that range
from extreme highs (excitedness or manic phases) to extreme lows (depression)
may have bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic depression). Periods of
moderate mood occur in between the extreme highs and lows. During manic phases,
children or adolescents may talk nonstop, need very little sleep, and show
unusually poor judgment. At the low end of the mood swing, children experience
severe depression. Bipolar mood swings can recur throughout life. Adults with
bipolar disorder (about one in 100) often experienced their first symptoms
during their teenage years (National Institutes of Health, 2001). For more, please read the
Bipolar Disorder article.