1 in 6 schoolchildren meet diagnostic criteria for mental disorder, CDC study finds


1 in 6 children (or 1 in 3, depending on the school district) have been shown to have enough symptoms to be diagnosed with a mental health condition. Photo by Syda Productions on Shutterstock

A 2020 CDC study looked at mental health symptoms in four different school districts in the United States from 2014 to 2018. This study found that, based on teacher and parent reports, one in six students exhibited sufficient behavioral or emotional symptoms to be diagnosed with a childhood mental disorder.

What was the Project to Learn About Youth Mental Health (PLAY-MH) study about?

This was a school-based study conducted throughout the years 2014-2018. This study was designed to estimate the number of K-12 students with specific mental health conditions.

The information was collected in two phases. In the first phase, teachers from selected school districts were asked to complete a short questionnaire to determine a student’s risk for a mental health disorder. In the second phase, the parents of the selected students were asked to respond to a more structured interview to determine if their child met the criteria for a mental health disorder. Between 1 in 6 students (1 in 3 in some districts) meet the criteria, according to the combined data.

Teachers also identified a higher percentage of boys, non-Hispanic black students, and students receiving free or reduced-price lunch as being at higher risk for mental disorders than their peers at most schools. However, according to parent reports, there were generally no major demographic differences in the percentage of students who met the criteria for a mental disorder. This interesting discrepancy suggests that estimating the effects of race or income on symptoms yielded different results depending on how the symptoms were examined.

How can we help at-risk students?

The information gathered during this four-year study can help parents, teachers and communities to understand and become more aware of young children’s mental health issues. With this knowledge, interventions and treatments can become more standardized when it comes to mental health issues in children.

The CDC has a few suggestions for how we as communities can help our at-risk children:

  • Schools can consider screening students for mental health issues and then following up with effective services and counseling options.
  • Pediatric and family clinics can use this information to establish how many children may be at risk.
  • Communities and parents can work with school systems to integrate mental health services and referrals into schools.

Anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, ADHD, ASD (autism spectrum disorders), and eating disorders are some of the commonly overlooked mental health issues in children. Photo by Monkey Business Images on Shutterstock

According to experts, here are some of the most common disorders in children:

Anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder): These conditions may appear as persistent fears, worries, or anxiety that interfere with their ability to participate in play, school, or other typical age-appropriate activities.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD have difficulty paying attention, tend to exhibit impulsive behaviors, generalized hyperactivity, or a combination of these issues.

Depression (or other mood disorders): Depression in children presents as persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest that interfere with their ability to function in school and interact with others.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a prolonged state of emotional distress and anxiety that is preceded by negative memories, nightmares, and disruptive behaviors in response to a traumatic event the child may have experienced.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): This is a neurological condition that can often be noticed in early childhood (before the age of three), if you know what to look for. The severity of ASD can vary – a child with this disorder has difficulty communicating and interacting with others.

Eating disorders: Eating disorders manifest as a preoccupation with an ideal body type. These include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

You can read the full study here.

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