Mental Health Care for Youth in the USA
Over the past twenty years, there’s been a positive trend in general public attitudes toward both mental health care and individuals struggling with emotional and psychological issues. Due in large part to the efforts of organizations such as The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), emotional and psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and others have gradually lost much of the enormous negative stigma that had previously been attached to them. In addition, individuals who struggle with these issues have become less and less marginalized. Families no longer try to hide loved ones with these challenges, and individuals working through these conditions are more likely to face them without shame or embarrassment and feel a greater freedom to discuss them openly with family and friends without fear of negative consequences or judgment. Along with this trend toward understanding and acceptance in the general adult population, a similar trend is visible toward psychological and emotional issues present in our youth: parents are no longer afraid to admit that their children may need help handling emotional, psychological or behavioral issues and are much more willing to enlist professional help in these areas. The most comprehensive study to examine this trend, published back in 2013 by the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms the movement: since 1995, there’s been a significant increase in mental health care for children and adolescents.
Inside the Numbers: Mental Health Visits, Diagnosis, and Medication for Youth
The study, entitled “National Trends in the Mental Health Care of Children, Adolescents and Adults by Office-Based Physicians,” examined data for over 400,000 individuals from 1995 to 2010 and made the following conclusions:
- Office Visits—Psychiatrists: For individuals under 20 years old, outpatient visits to office-based psychiatrists rose over 80 percent, from 2.8 to 5.1 per 100 individuals observed.
- Office Visits—Psychotherapists: For individuals under 20 years old, outpatient visits to office-based psychotherapists rose from 2.2 to 3.2 per 100 individuals observed.
- Office Visits Resulting in Diagnosis: For individuals under 20 years old, outpatient office visits resulting in a mental disorder diagnosis rose almost 90 percent, from 7.8 to 15.1 per 100 individuals observed.
- Office Visits for Medication: For individuals under 20 years old, outpatient office visits for psychotropic medication rose over 100 percent, from 8.4 to 17.1 per 100 individuals observed.
In contrast, the data for adults did not show similar increases in office visits to psychiatrists or for office visits resulting in diagnosis. In fact, office visits to psychotherapists for adults showed a slight decrease. However, when compared to youth, adult office visits for medication did show a similar increase of over 100 percent, from 30.8 to 65.9 for every 100 individuals observed.
Increased Awareness for Youth Mental Health
In the words of Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of the Child and Adolescent Center for NAMI, “increased office visits are in indicator of progress.” Because less than half the individuals under the age of twenty living with emotional and psychological illnesses receive proper medical care, this progress is both welcome and necessary. For a variety of reasons, parents, school administrators, and adults in general have been traditionally reluctant to admit that children – from toddlers to teenagers – face stress and anxiety in much the same way that they do. They have likewise been traditionally reluctant to realize that kids struggle with a wide variety of mental illnesses. While adults have long recognized and made attempts to treat behavioral issues in children, the movement in the past two decades toward identifying the psychological and emotional underpinnings of these behaviors is an important step in helping children fully realize their potential and lead full, happy and productive lives. If the trend toward diagnosis and treatment continues in this positive direction – we patiently await a follow-up to the 2014 study – we can all take heart that the days of simply treating the symptoms are behind us and we’re looking forward to a new era of understanding child and adolescent behavior and development.