New research highlights “invisible crisis in children’s mental health”

© iStock / Mehmet Hilmi Barcin

One in eight children have mental disorders that need treatment, but even high-income countries do not offer support to most of these children, a new study found.

The research published in the journal Evidence-based mental health, examined data from 14 studies in 11 countries published between 2003 and 2020. The countries included in the analysis were the USA, Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Great Britain, Israel, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea and Taiwan.

In total, the studies included over 61,500 children aged 18 years and younger. The results showed that the overall prevalence of mental disorders in childhood was 12.7%. The most common mental disorders were anxiety, attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiance disorder (e.g. argumentative behavior), substance use disorder (e.g. problematic alcohol or cannabis use), behavioral disorder and depression.

More than half of the children received no support due to mental illness

The authors of the study comment on the results: “Only 44.2% of children with mental disorders received any benefits for these diseases.

“In contrast, most of these countries have solid services for children’s physical health problems such as cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases.”

The authors say their results highlighted “an invisible crisis in children’s mental health”.

“Unacceptable performance failures”

They added, “We have shown high prevalence of mental health problems in children in high-income countries coupled with unacceptable supply shortages – to an extent that violates children’s rights.

“High income countries can afford to do better. Many countries will have to increase their children’s mental health budgets significantly.

“This is particularly urgent given the documented rise in children’s mental health needs since COVID-19 – a need that is expected to continue.”

Despite the significance of the results, the authors note some limitations in their work, particularly differences in the methods used in the included studies, including their diagnostic approaches and their assessment of service use. However, all studies reported data on children who had symptoms and also impairments due to their mental disorders, which underscored the need for treatment.

The authors concluded, “We believe our review can help policymakers better understand the mental health needs of children in high-income countries.

“In particular, policymakers can use our prevalence numbers as benchmarks – they calculate the number that will need treatment at any given time within a given population or jurisdiction, and then compare the number of people in need with the numbers actually receiving mental health services.”

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