Why are Mental Health Disorders in Children Increasing?

In a recent New Jersey Star Ledger article, guest columnist and Future of Children author Neal Halfon writes about the shift in disabilities from physical disorders to mental health disorders.

“The latest issue of Princeton/Brookings, Future of Children adds to the growing number of studies documenting that childhood disability rates are not only unexplainably increasing, but also that the way disabilities manifest is significantly changing,” Halfon writes. “Where the poster child of disability in the 1960’s was on crutches, the new face is a child with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or other problems affecting the brain.”

“Growing rates and shifting patterns of childhood disability challenge notions that U.S. children are generally healthy and suggest substantial changes in the risks children encounter. While disabilities are more common in children from lower-income households, a lack of family resources, education, or other forms of social deprivation don’t explain all of what’s going on. Some risk-hunting epidemiologists are considering whether any of the thousands of new chemicals in our environment are to blame,” Halfon continues, “while others are examining the role that toxic stresses may play in jolting developing nervous systems onto an aberrant path.” A recent Future of Children blog post further explores this topic, pulling research from the Children with Disabilities article on the prevention of disability in children.

The Future of Children’s Children with Disabilities volume explores various possible reasons for the shift in disabilities from physical to mental health disorders while emphasizing that regardless of the cause of the disability, “large numbers of children must live with a diagnosed disability, (and) these children merit attention.”

This is particularly true for children with mental health disorders. Both the Delaney and Smith and Stabile and Allin articles in the Children with Disabilities volume highlight the significant lifetime costs of mental health disorders for children. In fact, mental health disorders in childhood generally have larger impacts than childhood physical health problems in terms of adult health, years of schooling, participation in the labor force, marital status, and family income. Identifying the best ways to support these children is clearly important.

To read more about the ways to support children with disabilities’ education and health, go to the Future of Children’s Children with Disabilities volume. You may also be interested in reading about our recent practitioners’ conference, “Working with Children with Disabilities: Tools for Parents and Schools.

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