An Epidemic of Child Mental Illness?

ByABC News
July 23, 2003, 12:54 PM

July 31 -- When Monica was told she should consider taking her 2-year-old son to a psychiatrist, her first reaction was that maybe her pediatrician was the one in need of a shrink.

Thirty years ago, most psychiatrists would have agreed with her, but times change.

According to the Office of the Surgeon General, one in 10 children under the age of 18 "suffer from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment."

The National Institute of Mental Health, in its fact sheet for physicians Depression in Children and Adolescents, cited studies that found as many as 2.5 percent of children and 8.3 percent of teenagers suffer from depression.

Some psychiatrists say those numbers may even be conservative, suggesting that as many as one in five children will go through extended periods when they show the symptoms of significant emotional problems by the time they turn 18.

And those periods can begin surprisingly early, some psychiatrists say.

The subject is still controversial, but most child psychiatrists talked to agreed that at least some precursors of serious depression can appear in children as young as 2 years old. Some said that children that young can in fact suffer from full-blown depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Over the past 30 years there's been a general movement towards recognizing that children can suffer from serious psychiatric illnesses," said Dr. Jay Reeve, a clinical psychologist with 17 years experience who is currently the senior psychologist on the Children's Inpatient Unit at Bradley Hospital, a pediatric psychiatric hospital in East Providence, R.I.

He said it shouldn't really come as a surprise that children are vulnerable to emotional problems as serious as adults, because children have so little control over the world they live in, and especially when they are very young and cannot really understand why things happen.

"You've got a person 2 feet tall and vulnerable to anything the big people want to do," he said. "We see kids who are suffering from pretty clear signs of depression every day. I think you're seeing professionals and society becoming more comfortable with saying that kids suffer from these illnesses."

While some psychiatrists said that factors such as the rising number of families in which both parents work, violence in neighborhoods and the mobility of families may all have contributed over recent decades to more instability in young childrens' lives that in some cases might result in serious emotional problems, most said they do not believe that there has been any real growth in the number of children who suffer these problems.

Instead, it is that growing "comfort" with making the diagnosis that accounts for what seems like an increase in the number of disturbed kids in America, they say.