Children missing out on mental health care

Sad teen girl writing 'help' on pavement

Researchers have uncovered what they call ‘an invisible crisis in children’s mental health’, with a new review finding, in high-income countries, most young people with mental health issues don’t have access to treatment.

One in eight children have mental disorders that cause symptoms and impairment and therefore require treatment, but even in high-income countries most of these children will not gain access to services to treat them, the review by Canadian scientists shows.

The review of data from 14 studies in the US, Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Great Britain, Israel, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea and Taiwan found an overall prevalence of childhood mental disorders of 12.7 per cent.

“Concerningly, only 44.2 per cent of children with mental disorders received any services for these conditions,” the researchers say.

“In contrast, robust services are in place for child physical health problems such as cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases, in most of these countries.”

Separate research has found ‘young people in New Zealand have high morbidity but low service utilisation rates’.

Common mental disorders

The most common mental disorders were anxiety (5.2 per cent), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, 3.7 per cent), oppositional defiant disorder (3.3 per cent), substance use disorder (2.3 per cent), conduct disorder (1.3 per cent) and depression (1.3 per cent).

Treatment for mental disorders is essential because they can significantly interfere with wellbeing and development, the researchers say, and high-income countries can ‘afford to do better’.

The research, published in Evidence-Based Mental Health, included 61,545 children aged 18 years or younger and shows many countries need to substantially increase children’s mental health budgets.

“This is particularly urgent given documented increases in children’s mental health needs since COVID-19—needs which are predicted to continue,” the researchers say.

The importance of early intervention

Previous studies have shown prevention and early intervention are key to minimising the impact of any serious health condition, but this is not being applied to youth mental health.

Mental health is vital to a person’s ability to function well in their personal and social life and build resilience, which makes childhood mental health key to reaching full potential in adulthood.

The World Health Organization has identified depression as a leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.

Evidence shows most mental health disorders emerge during the transition from childhood to young adulthood, but people aged under 25 years are more likely to experience delays in accessing treatment.

Better, more timely access could potentially reduce disease burden and healthcare system costs in the long run.

Study limitations

There were variations in the methods used to collect data in the studies reviewed, but the researchers say all the studies reported data on children who had impairing symptoms of mental disorder and therefore met the criteria of needing treatment.

“We believe that our review can enable policymakers to better understand the mental health needs of children in high-income countries,” the researchers say.

How you can support someone waiting for treatment

If you know someone who is experiencing difficulties with their mental health it is important to listen to them without judgement and support them to link up with the right services that can help them move forward.

  • If you are waiting for services, be patient with your loved one, don’t allow them to feel like they are a burden or horrible to have around
  • Let them know you are available to listen or just be with them if they need it. Listening means letting them talk without offering ‘fixes’ or invalidating their thoughts or feelings. Offer words of encouragement and understanding and keep your opinions to yourself!
  • Keep inviting them to join in with activities, even if they say ‘no’ every time. Knowing they are wanted helps, even if it doesn’t show
  • If your loved one doesn’t feel comfortable talking directly about what they’re feeling, leaving a book about depression or anxiety open on a specific page in a room, or showing them a website, is often a good way to give teenagers information
  • If your loved one is suicidal, get help immediately. Remove any knives, blades, poisons, medicines or anything else that may be used to harm themselves from the immediate environment and keep a respectful eye on them until help arrives.

For more advice and information on mental health you might be interested in:

First published: Jul 2021

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