Skip to content

An Overview of American Children and Mental Health

It’s been called one of the richest studies of its kind. The National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey looked into the well being of the nation’s children. Dr. Kathleen Merikangas of the National Institute of Mental Health was the lead author of the survey that tracked mental disorders in children and how many of those surveyed received treatment.

Watch on YouTube.


Introduction: Welcome to “Speaking of Science”, the National Institute of Mental Health presents a series of conversations with innovative researchers working in a wide range of disciplines to pave the way for the prevention, recovery, and cure of mental illness.  

Dr. Merikangas: This study, I think is one of the richest in the world and unique because we try to put together all of the different facets of health to try to understand the whole child.

Narrator: Dr. Kathleen Merikangas of the National Institute of Mental Health is the lead author of a remarkable study into the overall well-being of our children. The National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, or NHANES, was a collaborative effort between NIMH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over a three year period, this mobile clinic examined adults and more than three thousand children ages eight to fifteen. Researchers tracked six mental disorders and asked what treatment, if any, the children were receiving.

Over 13-percent of those surveyed were found to have at least one disorder. 8.6 percent had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD… with boys more likely to have the disorder.
3.7 percent had depression with girls more likely to have the disorder. Conduct disorder, anxiety and eating disorders were reported as well…

Dr. Merikangas:  There’s a large number of children who suffer from emotional and behavioral problems, and I think by raising the awareness the extent to which these kinds of conditions the rates are comparable to those of diabetes and asthma, and other diseases of childhood are very important. Because we don’t want to see mental disorders as stigmatized and as some different category of illness, when really they are part of mainstream dysfunction or deregulation of children’s functional status.

Narrator: But when it comes to the critical question of how many children are getting the professional care they need… nearly half of those surveyed had not consulted with a mental health professional. And only 32-percent of children with anxiety disorder had sought treatment. So, why aren’t more children receiving needed care?

Dr. Merikangas: There has to be treatment that’s available. So we have dramatic differences in the availability of help for children in the United States so in some places we have a fairly large network of support for children with problems and in other areas we don’t have a child psychiatrist within five hundred miles to a thousand miles. Also of course money comes into the question because it’s very costly to get treatment because the types of treatment these children may need may be ongoing.

Narrator: However, this comprehensive survey helps create an important baseline for future treatment… as well as important messages for parents and caregivers….

Dr. Merikangas: I think when we take this together with the information that NIMH has on the availability of effective services for children than I think that if we can put this together with that and let people know that there are services available, that children can get help for these things, and most importantly I think specifics of their parents is that it’s not their fault that their children has these conditions and sometimes they can’t manage them themselves. Because many of these conditions come with a child it’s not the result of the parent.