1 in 6 school children meet criteria for mental disorder diagnosis, according to CDC study

Symptoms of mental illness in children are often dismissed as "going through a phase."

child covering his face

Is your child struggling with a mental health condition?

Photo by Suzanne Tucker on Shutterstock
  • A 2020 CDC study examined mental health symptoms in four different school districts within the United States from 2014-2018. This study found that, based on the reports from both teachers and parents, one in six students showed enough behavioral or emotional symptoms to be diagnosed with a childhood mental disorder.
  • Mental health conditions or illnesses in children are generally defined as delays or disruptions in developing age-appropriate thinking, behaviors, social skills, or emotional regulation.
  • Children can develop many of the same mental health conditions as adults, but their symptoms may be different.



    children in class listening to teacher

    1 in 6 (or 1 in 3, depending on the school district) children were shown to have enough symptoms to be diagnosed with a mental health condition.

    Photo by Syda Productions on Shutterstock

    A 2020 CDC study examined mental health symptoms in four different school districts within the United States from 2014-2018. This study found that, based on the reports from both teachers and parents, one in six students showed enough behavioral or emotional symptoms to be diagnosed with a childhood mental disorder.

    What was the Project to Learn About Youth Mental Health (PLAY-MH) study?

    This was a school-based study conducted throughout the years of 2014-2018. This study was designed to estimate how many kindergarten - grade 12 students had specific mental health disorders.

    The information was collected in two phases. In phase one, teachers in selected school districts were asked to complete a short questionnaire to determine a student's risk for a mental health disorder. In phase two, the parents of selected students were asked to complete a more structured interview to determine if their child met the criteria for a mental health disorder. Between 1 in 6 students (1 in 3 in some districts) fit the criteria, according to the combined data.

    Teachers also identified a higher percentage of boys, non-Hispanic Black students, and students receiving free or reduced-price lunch as having a higher risk for mental disorders than their peers at most schools. However, based on the parent reports, there were generally no major demographic differences in the percentage of students who met the criteria for a mental disorder. This interesting discrepancy suggests that estimating effects of race or income on symptoms gave different results depending on the way the symptoms were examined.

    How can we help at-risk students?

    The information gathered during this four-year study can help parents, teachers, and communities alike to understand and become more aware of the mental health struggles of younger children. With this knowledge, interventions and treatments can become more normalized when dealing with children's mental health conditions.

    The CDC has some suggestions for how we, as communities, can help our at-risk children:

    • Schools can consider screening students for mental health concerns and then following up with effective services and counseling options.
    • Pediatric and family clinics can use this information to establish how many children may be at risk.
    • Communities and parents can work together with school systems to integrate mental health services and referrals into the schools.

    Common mental health disorders in children, according to experts

    Stressed and anxious student sitting at desk during exam

    Anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, ADHD, ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and eating disorders are among commonly overlooked mental health conditions in children.

    Photo by Monkey Business Images on Shutterstock

    According to experts, these are some of the most common disorders among children:

    Anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders): These conditions may appear as persistent fears, worries, or anxiety that disrupt their ability to participate in play, school, or other typical age-appropriate activities.

    Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Children who struggle with ADHD have difficulty with attention, tend to have impulsive behaviors, generalized hyperactivity, or some combination of these issues.

    Depression (or other mood disorders): Depression in children presents as persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest that disrupt their ability to function in school and interact with others.

    Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a prolonged state of emotional distress and anxiety that is prefaced with negative memories, nightmares, and disruptive behaviors in response to a traumatic event the child may have suffered.

    Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): This is a neurological condition that often can be noticed in early childhood (before the age of three), if you know what to look for. The severity of ASD can vary— a child with this disorder has difficulty communicating and interacting with others.

    Eating disorders: Eating disorders show as a preoccupation with an ideal body type. These include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.


    You can read the full study here.


    U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

    Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

    U.S. Navy ships

    Credit: Getty Images
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    Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

    She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

    Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
    Technology & Innovation

    This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

    Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

    CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

    So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

    The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

    This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

    Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

    I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

    I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

    CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

    Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

    Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

    Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

    "Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
    DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

    When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

    We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

    Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

    Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

    There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

    We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

    Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

    This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

    Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

    Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

    There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

    What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

    Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

    "There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
    DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

    There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

    When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

    Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

    We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

    Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

    The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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    Megalodon attacks a seal.

    Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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