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

© iStock/Mehmet Hilmi Barcin

One in eight children have mental disorders requiring treatment but even high-income countries are failing to provide most of these children with support, a new study has revealed.

The investigation, published in the journal Evidence-Based Mental Health, looked at data from 14 studies in 11 countries published between 2003 and 2020. The countries included in the analysis were the US, Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, the UK, Israel, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea, and Taiwan.

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

Over half of children received no support for mental health conditions

Commenting on the findings, the authors of the study said: “Concerningly, only 44.2% of children with mental disorders received any services for these conditions.

“In contrast, robust services are in place for child physical health problems such as cancer, diabetes, and infectious diseases in most of these countries.”

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

“Unacceptable service shortfalls”

They added: “We have depicted a high prevalence of childhood mental disorders coupled with unacceptable service shortfalls in high-income countries – to a degree that violates children’s rights.

“High-income countries can afford to do better. Many countries will need to substantially increase children’s mental health budgets.

“This is particularly urgent given documented increases in children’s mental health needs since COVID-19 – needs which are predicted to continue.”

Despite the significance of the findings, the authors do note several limitations in their paper, particularly variations in methods used in the included studies, including their diagnostic approaches and how they assessed service use. However, all studies reported data on children who had symptoms and also impairment as a result of their mental disorders, underscoring the need for treatment.

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

“In particular, policymakers can use our prevalence figures as benchmarks – calculating the numbers needing treatment at any given time within a given population or jurisdiction, then comparing the numbers in need with the numbers actually receiving mental health services.”



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