Over half of all Americans will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their life. Most of these will originate in childhood. Symptoms of mental health disorders often begin as early as preschool or even before. Mental illness in adulthood is correlated with higher rates of substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration, unemployment and suicide. Research has shown that interventions in early childhood are more likely to be effective and also to have a cumulative effect when paired with continuing intervention throughout the life span. For this reason, it is important that we all work together to increase awareness of this issue and take the steps necessary to provide help as early as possible.
No matter what your personal or professional background is, you are very likely to come across a child at some point in time who has a diagnosable mental illness. According to a recent publication by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC, in any given year up to 20% of children in the United States are suffering from a diagnosable mental health disorder. 20% is equal to one in every five children. Data also shows that this number is consistently increasing from year to year. However, in spite of this high number, we also know that about 2/3 of children who need mental health services do not receive them. This lack of engagement in treatment leads to a significant under-reporting of the actual incidence of mental health disorders in childhood.
Knowing that 2/3 of children who would benefit from mental health services do not receive them leads us to the question of why that might be. There are three main categories of barriers to mental health care for children. The first category consists of structural barriers. This category includes lack of providers, long waitlists, lack of insurance, the cost of services even with insurance, lack of transportation, and inconvenient or inaccessible services. The second category is barriers related to perceptions about mental health problems. Included in this category is an inability by parents, teachers, or medical providers to determine a child’s need for services, denial of the severity of the problem, and the belief that the problem will resolve on its own. The third category is barriers related to perceptions about mental health services. Examples of this include lack of trust in mental health providers, previous negative experiences with mental health services, a child who doesn’t want help, and the stigma associated with mental health services.