Mental illnesses are not exclusive to adults. Children of all ages experience mental disorders (or illnesses), many of which can be serious enough to impact all aspects of their daily lives. When left untreated, these disorders can lead to conflicts at home and school, with friends and family; drug abuse; dropping out of school; problems with the juvenile justice system; and even suicide.

Understanding the facts about mental disorders in children and learning what to look for are the first steps to getting help. Below are some basic facts and information about mental disorders and children. Click here for a list of organizations for families and youth and here for a Library of information.

Mental Disorders and Children

In the United States:*

  • Mental disorders affect approximately one-in-five children.
  • Approximately five to nine percent of children between the ages of nine and 17 live with severe emotional disturbances (SED) that cause functional impairment in their daily lives.
  • 79% of children from ages six to 17 living with a mental disorder do not receive mental health care. And children without health care insurance have a higher rate of unmet need than children with public or private insurance.
  • Approximately 50% of students (14 years of age and older) with a mental disorder drop out of high school — the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among children ages 15 to 24, and more than 90% of children and adolescents who commit suicide have a mental disorder. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined.
  • 70% of youth involved in state and local juvenile justice systems live with mental disorders, 20% experience symptoms so severe that their ability to function is significantly impaired. For more information about juvenile justice and mental health illness read Blueprint for Change (National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, 2006).
  • Untreated mental disorders in children are often linked to substance abuse.
  • Many options for treatment exist and work for children living with mental disorders, including psychotherapy, behavioral interventions, and psychopharmacology, among others.

Types of Mental Disorders Affecting Children

According to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General, the following are common mental disorders suffered by children:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit and disruptive behavior disorders
  • Autism and other pervasive developmental disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Elimination disorders
  • Learning and communication disorders
  • Mood disorders (e.g., depressive disorders)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Tic disorders

*The information this page is adapted from: National Alliance on Mental Illness, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General—Executive Summary (1999)Bazelon Center for Mental Health LawMental Health America; and SAMHSA.