One in seven American children aged 2 to 8 suffers from a mental, behavioral or developmental problem, federal health officials report.
Researchers analyzed data supplied by parents in the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health, looking for reported speech and language problems, learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, anxiety and more.
"Based on the number of kids affected, this is something we need to pay attention to," said lead researcher Jennifer Kaminski, team leader for child development studies at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The researchers found that young children with mental, behavioral or developmental disorders were less likely than others to have access to medical care that was family-centered, continuous, comprehensive, coordinated, compassionate and culturally effective.
Parental mental health problems and child-care problems were also commonly associated with mental, behavioral and developmental disorders in young children, the researchers said.
Incidence of disorders varied widely by state, "which suggests that there are things states can do to improve the health of these kids," Kaminski said.
Prevalence of disorders was lowest in California -- at 10.6 percent -- and about double that in Arkansas and Kentucky, the findings showed.
Fair or poor parental mental health was highest in Washington, D.C., and lowest in Kansas, according to the study.
Neighborhood support also varied widely, with a fourfold difference between the highest (North Dakota) and lowest (Arizona) rates among the states.
Children living in poverty, or in homes where English is not spoken, were at the highest risk for these problems, Kaminski said. "Speaking English is either an indicator of assimilation into the culture and/or a sign of better access to health care," she said.
"We are not able to say if these risk factors are caused by or causing the disorders, but they are important for children's health," Kaminski added.
Moreover, this snapshot cannot reveal if more children are suffering from these problems than in years past, she explained.
The report, based on more than 35,000 children, was published March 11 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The full range of childhood problems also included depression, developmental delay, Tourette syndrome and intellectual disability.
Dr. Andrew Adesman is chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park. He said that "this most recent analysis is neither the first nor the last to make the case that mental, behavioral and developmental disorders in young children are linked to a variety of health care, family and community factors." Adesman was not involved with the new study.
"Unfortunately, it is far easier to identify risk factors than to remedy them," Adesman added.
Governmental agencies need to redouble their commitment to address longstanding societal problems that adversely affect children, such as poverty and lack of access to health care, he said.
Another expert, Dr. Eugene Grudnikoff, said the finding that access to health care and parental mental health predict the health of young children is critically important.
Traditional interventions primarily target the signs and symptoms of illness, said Grudnikoff, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y. Underlying social stressors and parental dysfunction are always harder to address and often overlooked by clinicians and policymakers, he said.
It is critical that communities and legislators heed the recommendations of this report to invest in more "effective collaboration among governmental, private and other agencies responsible for providing services to children," Grudnikoff said.