Mental health issues in children on the rise

March 16, 2022

A new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study published in the American Medical Association’s journal, JAMA Pediatrics, reports significant increases in the number of children diagnosed with mental health conditions.

The study, conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), found that between 2016 and 2020, the number of children ages 3-17 years diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent and those with depression by 27 percent. The findings also suggest concerning changes in child and family well-being after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following President Joe Biden's State of the Union Address on March 1, 2022, in which the President laid out a national strategy to tackle the nation’s mental health crisis as part of his Unity Agenda, Secretary Becerra kicked off a National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health in an effort to hear directly from Americans across the country about the mental health challenges they're facing and engage with local leaders to strengthen the mental health and crisis care systems in our communities.

As the Administration implements a whole-of-government strategy to transform mental health services for all Americans, the Secretary will ensure all children and families have easy, affordable, and equitable access to the care, support, and services they need. Just last week, HHS announced nearly $35 million in funding opportunities to strengthen and expand community mental health services and suicide prevention programs for America’s children and young adults.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, analyzes parent-reported data from the HRSA-directed National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) on 36 separate health-related measures over time, among them preventive health checkups, mental health diagnoses, physical activity, and caregiver well-being.

"Our research highlights a critical need to support both children and their caregivers to improve families’ mental and emotional well-being," said Michael Warren, MD, Associate Administrator of HRSA’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau and co-author on the study. "This includes ensuring access to timely healthcare services and addressing social determinants of health to support children and families’ overall well-being."

From 2019 to 2020, researchers found a 21 percent increase in children with behavior or conduct problems. The proportion of children with preventive medical care visits dropped by 9 percent and the proportion with unmet healthcare needs grew by 32 percent. Children’s physical activity decreased by 18 percent between 2016 and 2020.

The number of parents who reported difficulty coping with parenting demands also increased significantly from 2019 to 2020. The proportion of young children whose parents quit, declined, or changed jobs due to child care challenges increased by 34 percent.

HRSA is investing in critical strategies to support children’s mental health and well-being through expanding access to mental health services and growing the mental health workforce.  HRSA’s work includes:

  • Expanding access to pediatric mental health care: HRSA funds the Pediatric Mental Healthcare Access Program to support primary care providers in diagnosing, treating, and referring children and youth with mental health conditions to services.
  • Training child psychiatrists:  HRSA funds residency training of child psychiatrists in the nation’s freestanding children’s teaching hospitals and supports the education and training of child psychiatrists and other clinicians to support the mental health needs of children.
  • Developing guidelines on youth preventive care, including mental healthcare:  Through the Bright Futures Program, HRSA releases national guidelines to support children receiving high quality, efficient, and comprehensive pediatric care.  Bright Futures’ recommended preventive services are covered without cost-sharing by most health plans.  In 2022, Bright Futures updates include adding universal screening for suicide risk to the current depression screening category for individuals ages 12 to 21, and new guidance for behavioral, social and emotional screening.
  • Providing healthcare, including mental health care, to millions:  Millions of people across the country receive health care services – and increasingly mental health care services – at HRSA-funded community health centers located in underserved communities across the country.
  • Providing in-home supports to parents and children:  Through the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, HRSA supports families during pregnancy and the early childhood years, by linking health services, social services, and child development resources to support family well-being.
  • Investing in training and growing the mental health workforce:  HRSA funds training, scholarships and loan repayment programs, and other programs to recruit, train, and place mental health professionals in the community, including supporting children’s mental health.

HHS Release