Child Mental Health Disorder Rates May Not Be Rising

Hyperactivity in children increased, but other common child mental symptoms did not

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Recent claims about children's mental health in the media have had a tendency to be somewhat negative. But a new Canadian study suggests some of those claims may be inaccurate.

The authors of the study looked at trends in the rates of mental health symptoms in children in Canada.

They found that, while rates of some mental health issues like hyperactivity increased, many others like depression and anxiety stayed the same or even decreased.

“Popular media tends to perpetuate the idea that the prevalence of mental disorders is increasing," said lead study author Ian Colman, of the University of Ottawa in Canada, in a press release. "However, research supporting this position has been inconsistent."

In the United States, there also seems to be a common perception that rates of mental disorders are increasing. However, according to Glen Elliott, PhD, MD, Chief Psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Children's Health Council in Palot Alto, CA, our ability to measure mental disorder rates in the US is limited compared to that of countries like Canada.

"Trying to pin down how common a psychiatric disorder is among children in the United States typically is frustrating because, unlike our allies to the north and several countries in Europe, the US has no central registry from which to draw data about this kind of information. Instead, we tend to focus on one condition at a time, with a tendency to emphasize the dramatic, such as reported increases in autism or ADHD," Dr. Elliott said.

"The Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC) does periodically report on trends in various disorders based typically on phone interviews of parents, which is far less precise and accurate than the databases Canada is able to utilize," Dr. Elliott explained.

"With the probable exception of autism, where reported rates seem to increase each time a report is released, most other behavioral and psychiatric problems among children and adolescents in the US have been relatively stable over the past decade or so, and some, such as suicide rates, actually have decreased notably," he said. "However, the urge to call attention to disorders that parents and professionals should not miss often masks this underlying trend.”

For the current study, Colman and colleagues studied data from the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth.

The study authors placed the children in three age groups: 11,725 children aged 10 to 11; 10,574 children aged 12 to 13; and 9,835 children aged 14 to 15. They measured the rate of changes to child mental illness levels over two-year cycles. The two-year cycles began in 1994 and ended in 2009.

Every two years, the children answered a survey about some of the most common child mental health issues — such as hyperactivity, aggression, depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior.

The study authors found that there was a 6 percent decrease in depression and anxiety rates in Canadian children aged 14 to 15 during a two-year cycle. But depression and anxiety rates for kids aged 10 to 11 and 12 to 13 did not significantly change.

The authors noted that rates of physical and indirect aggression declined in all three age groups. Physical aggression consisted of kicking or hitting others. Indirect aggression occurred when a child spoke negatively about another.

The study authors also found that the rate of Canadian children aged 12 to 13 who had attempted suicide decreased by 40 percent. They also found that rates of 14- to 15-year-old adolescents who had considered or attempted suicide decreased by 92 and 56 percent, respectively.

Rates of hyperactivity in Canadian children aged 10 to 11 increased by 16 percent. In the 12- to 13-year-old group, this figure increased by 13 percent. Hyperactivity is a common symptom of attention deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The authors noted that many people may think rates of mental illness have risen because mental illness doesn't have the same negative perception attached to it that it once did. Increased public awareness of mental illness symptoms may lead some to seek treatment who might not have in the past.

Little data on the success of suicide prevention efforts exists, the study authors noted. But they noted that some plans, such as doctor education and school-based programs, show promise in the reduction of suicidal behaviors among kids.

The study was published Nov. 3 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Grants from the SickKids Foundation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research funded the study. The study authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
November 2, 2014
Last Updated:
November 10, 2014