New study shows rise in kids diagnosed with mental health conditions: What parents should know

Children ages 3 to 17 experienced more anxiety, depression, the study found.

March 15, 2022, 11:02 AM

As experts warn of a growing mental health crisis among kids due to the coronavirus pandemic, new data shows the mental health struggles kids faced even prior to the pandemic.

Between 2016 and 2020, the number of children ages 3 to 17 who were diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29% and those with depression by 27%, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, a medical journal.

From 2019 to 2020, researchers found a 21% increase in children with behavior or conduct problems, according to the study.

“Our research highlights a critical need to support both children and their caregivers to improve families’ mental and emotional well-being,” Dr. Michael Warren, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “This includes ensuring access to timely health care services and addressing social determinants of health to support children and families’ overall well-being.”

The study was conducted using data from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), which collects data on 36 separate health-related measures, including preventive health checkups, mental health diagnoses, physical activity and caregiver well-being, according to HHS.

VIDEO: New study shows spike in kids diagnosed with mental health disorders

In addition to finding an increase in the diagnosis of mental health conditions, the study also found that children's physical activity decreased by 18% between 2016 and 2020. In addition, the proportion of kids with unmet health care needs grew by 32%, according to the study.

The study comes on the heels of a warning last year from the U.S. surgeon general of a growing mental health crisis among young people. Organizations representing child psychiatrists, pediatricians and children’s hospitals also declared a national emergency for youth mental health in 2021.

"I'm deeply concerned as a parent and as a doctor that the obstacles this generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate and the impact that's having on their mental health is devastating," U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in testimony before senators in February.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that emergency department visits for suicide attempts among teen girls were up more than 50% at the beginning of the pandemic compared to the same period in 2019.

Dr. Darien Sutton, a board-certified emergency medicine physician and ABC News medical contributor, said parents should realize that mental health conditions, including anxiety, may look different in kids than adults.

In children, anxiety in particular can manifest with irritability, mood changes, changes to interest in activities, and in physical conditions like stomachaches and headaches, according to Sutton.

"The first advice that I give to any parent is to have an open and honest conversation with your child at a level that they can understand," said Sutton. "It’s important to know that your role in that conversation is to make sure that you validate and support their concerns."

Sutton said parents should also reach out to their child's pediatrician if they have concerns, or reach out for support through help lines like The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.