WASHINGTON — Dr. Jerome Adams warned of a “staggering” rise in the number of adolescents with mental illness on Thursday, and he also described a lack of proper screening for those who are “acting out” or exhibiting signs of substance abuse in the White House briefing room.
“Simply put, that means that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 5 boys in grades K-12, are victims of violence in the same way that 1 in 20 African-American boys are victims of violence,” Adams, the nation’s chief medical officer, said of the American Psychiatric Association’s new National Health Profile 2016 report, which provides a national snapshot of mental health in the United States.
He also said that with “70 percent of all mental health conditions diagnosed before the age of 21,” access to care is crucial for children and teens.
In 2012, Adams told The Washington Post, 19 percent of students experienced “emotional distress,” defined by the APA as “any kind of hurt, anger, or other physical, emotional, or behavioral change that the student is not able to cope with in a comfortable way.”
The proportion of children and teens suffering from anxiety, depression and mood disorders, he said, nearly doubled from 2001 to 2012, rising from 1.5 percent to 3.3 percent.
The APA report found that more than 40 percent of young children are “motivated by day-to-day circumstances and problems in their homes, school, or environment to try to meet their needs by using unhealthy means, using alcohol, drugs, illegal activities, or engaging in risky behaviors such as eating disorders, Internet usage, sexual activity, sexting, or hanging out with adults they may not trust.”
Adams, a former physician, has campaigned against the introduction of a vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, which he believes causes autism in some children.
That controversy led to a fierce, national debate on the vaccine issue, but Adams said the newly released report showing the dramatic increase in mental health among children is “conclusively backed by the facts.”
He told reporters that nine of the 10 leading preventable causes of death in America are considered risk factors for mental health conditions, but “there is still a glaring disconnect between the statistics and our culture.”
The report showed that 3.6 million American children aged 6-11 were in foster care in 2013, compared with 1.8 million in 2005. Some 1.8 million young adolescents have been diagnosed with ADHD, with another 1.2 million believed to have symptoms of the disorder.
The number of reported suicides among children aged 10-14 years increased from 1,473 in 2005 to 2,269 in 2014, according to the report.
The report drew mixed responses among experts in mental health.
“It’s not something to be very concerned about,” said Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, chair of psychiatry at UC Berkeley, who said the CDC’s numbers were “very low.”
But the report also highlighted a persistent gap between boys and girls in mental health, with 7.8 percent of teenage girls struggling with depression, compared with 10.3 percent of boys.
“The news isn’t all bad,” said Glenn Fleishman, president of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, who called the data “not bad” because they showed that 5 percent of girls and 4 percent of boys were exhibiting signs of substance abuse. He noted that rates of teen drug use are “down dramatically” from a decade ago.
For teens dealing with bullying, which can have a severe impact on their physical and mental health, “we need better access to services,” he said.
Cori, who is in the 9th grade at a Washington high school, said this week that bullies often become easily led, and she often lacks the support she needs to resist that pressure.
“There are a lot of kids in high school that have to go see a counselor at some point,” she said. “Sometimes, I need help to see when someone is trying to tell me something.”
While she said she hadn’t experienced a major issue that required a counselor’s help, she knew many other kids who had suffered from low self-esteem, self-harm, or had contemplated suicide.
Like many other girls, she said, she was too timid to speak up.