About 20 percent of children nationwide have mental health disorders, a problem that has been escalating for more than a decade, federal health officials reported Thursday.
In an investigation described as a first of its kind, a panel of experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked the prevalence of serious mental health conditions in kids between the ages 3 and 17 -- and opened a new window on childhood psychological struggles.
Kids from all regions and ethnic backgrounds are afflicted with conditions that range from anxiety and depression to serious conduct disorders. The most prevalent -- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD -- affects nearly 7 percent of children nationwide.
It is estimated that more 4 million children have ADHD, but millions of others have equally serious concerns, according to the investigation's authors.
For example, an estimated 3.5 percent of children have behavioral problems and another 3 percent have anxiety issues. About 1 percent have autism, according to the report.
"No parent, grandparent, teacher or friend wants to see a child struggle with these issues," CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a statement.
"We are working to both increase our understanding of these disorders and scale up programs and strategies to prevent mental illness," he said.
The cost of treating affected children is astronomical -- about $247 billion annually, CDC panelists found.
"I think the estimate of 1 in 5 children affected by a mental health disorder would probably surprise a lot of people, but sitting in this seat, it doesn't," said Dr. Michael Genovese, a Garden City psychiatrist who treats children and adults. He was not involved in the CDC investigation.
Speaking from the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in San Francisco, Genovese said he treats a substantial number of children with ADHD, depression, anxiety disorders and a condition known as oppositional defiant disorder. All are listed in the CDC report.
"Oppositional defiant disorder is a very difficult one," Genovese said. "It's generally something you can't treat with medication.
"People with ODD have no respect for authority; they get in trouble a lot; they can't follow rules and they have a total disregard for the feelings of others," Genovese said.
He added that intensive psychotherapy is usually the best treatment because ODD can be a precursor to serious anti-social and violent behavior patterns seen in adults.
Dr. Gil Tippy, an Oyster Bay child psychologist, also said he is not surprised by the panelists' findings."Unfortunately, it's a very sad growth industry," he said of his role as a child mental health professional "and I would very much like to be out of business. But kids are so anxious and depressed -- they feel so alone."
Tippy attributed some of the mental health issues to fragmented families, a growing disappearance of unstructured outdoor playtime and an education system that doesn't meet individual needs.