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Kid's Mental Health: A Hidden Crisis

One in 10 children suffers from mental illnesses severe enough to impair their development, but fewer than half that number ever get any treatment.

That's according to a new report from the U.S. Surgeon General's office, which says there is a "crisis" in the level of health care received by Americans under the age of 18.

In an interview with CBS News Early Show Anchor Bryant Gumbel, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher says the problem is caused in part by a "lack of awareness" by families, teachers and the general public.

"Many children who suffer mental health problems end up in the juvenile justice system," says Satcher, "because no one recognizes the problem or refers them for treatment. We don't have a system for responding to their needs."

He urges parents to avoid the trap of not checking out possible mental health problems in their children because of embarrassment or feelings of blaming themselves - thinking they've failed somehow as parents.

"The stigma that surrounds mental illness prevents a lot of parents (from being) willing to admit their child has a problem and bring that child forward for treatment," explains Satcher. "We as a society have to deal with the stigma surrounding mental illness in children."

Satcher's newest call for action adds to his 1999 report declaring mental disorders a major undertreated problem for adults and children. It comes amid a recent backlash against one prominent childhood problem, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Lawsuits charge ADHD is overdiagnosed to push the drug Ritalin to children who merely are rambunctious.

There is some overtreatment, but also "there are many children who could benefit from medications as well as behavioral treatment," Satcher said, identifying ADHD and depression as leading mental disorders affecting children.

According to the report:

  • Regular pediatricians treat most affected children and report difficulty referring serious patients to mental health specialists, including appointment waits of three to four months. Some communities offer no child mental health services at all.
  • In one study, some children with emotional disorders didn't get proper school services until age 10.
  • Just as for adults, insurance coverage for children's mental health varies considerably and can be a problem. The report says there have been cases in which parents relinquished custody so their children could receive welfare-funded therapy.
  • One juvenile detention center study found over two-thirds of detainees had a psychiatric disorder. Yet the juvenile justice system seldom screens children for treatable illnesses.
The report urges mental health training for doctors, teachrs, welfare and juvenile justice workers, and better access to care. Satcher said Medicaid is developing community models for mental health services, and that the federal justice and education departments will work with health officials on training.

The National Institute of Mental Health increased research funding on children's disorders by $33 million this year.

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