New York (CNN) – Half of children with mental illness in the United States go without treatment, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
Researchers analyzed data from the National Child Health Survey for 2016, conducted nationally on parents of children and teenagers. Of the 46.6 million children aged 6 to 18 whose parents completed the study, 7.7 million had at least one mental illness – such as depression, anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – and only half received treatment or consultation by a psychiatric provider. 12 months before the study.
The number of children with mental illness varies greatly between countries. In Hawaii, for example, 7.6% of children had one of the conditions, compared to 27.2% in Maine. The number of children with a diagnosed mental illness not treated by a provider also varies widely from 29.5% in the District of Columbia to 72.2% in North Carolina.
Mark Peterson, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Medical and senior author of the study, has a long history of studying health conditions that begin in childhood and subsequently lead to disabilities in life.
"Historically, I was studying everything from the neck down," he said. Petterson said he recently took a step back to consider conditions that affect children at an early age in a more comprehensive way that made him study mental health. He did not expect to find such large numbers.
But psychiatrists and psychologists were not surprised by the results.
"Unfortunately, this is not news for us," said Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurti, a UT Health San Antonio, a psychiatrist for children and adolescents at UT Health San Antonio who did not participate in the study.
"We know that the number of children with mental illness and who are not treated is very high," she added.
There are a number of difficulties and challenges for children and their families when it comes to access to mental health services, explained Jennifer Mawton, a psychologist at Children and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences at the Philadelphia Children's Hospital.
In some families and communities, mental illness is still seen in a negative light, Robles-Ramamurti explained.
"Only in the last few decades have we really started to work to desist the mental illness," she said.
As a result, families and young people often do not feel comfortable receiving mental health services, Mautone added.
The next big problem is the insurance coverage, said Robles-Ramamurti.
"There is a wide variety in what is covered, how well covered, and people are concerned." Mental health treatment is typically not a type of environment every few months, "she said. "For families struggling to make ends meet, spending can be a real challenge."
Even in countries with appropriate regulations for families looking for mental health treatment, there may not be enough qualified providers.
According to data from the American Academy of Pediatric and Adolescent Psychiatry, most of the country is facing a serious shortage of practitioners of child and adolescent psychiatrists with less than 17 providers per 100,000 children.
This means that many families face a long waiting time, which in turn can lead to a deterioration in the child's basic mental state and the need for more treatment sessions than if the condition had been considered in the early stages, Mauton.
Available qualified providers face another challenge: communicating with other systems that care for children.
There are many childcare systems in this country, Robles-Ramammurti said, including the education system, the healthcare system, the juvenile justice system and the child protection system.
"All these systems, supposed to take care of children, often do not talk to each other," she said. "Many times children fall into the cracks and families are not getting the necessary support they need," she added.
In an effort to provide timely mental health services for children, many pediatric healthcare systems have begun integrating these services into pediatric offices.
By joining with pediatricians, mental health providers build on existing trust and can reach their families in a familiar environment, said Mautone, who runs such a program: the Healthy Minds initiative, Healthy Kids at the Philadelphia Children's Hospital.
"We are easily accessible, many times on the same day to explain our service, meet family and begin to understand what the challenges are," she added.
The program has served more than 2,500 patients over the past two years and continues to expand. Robles-Ramamurti sees this as a sign of progress, but says there is still a lot to do.
"Untreated mental illnesses in children pose serious consequences for our communities, including high levels of suicide, academic decline and unemployment," she said.
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