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October 18, 2023

Less than half of children with mental health disorders receive treatment, study finds

To improve access, researchers recommend primary care doctors be trained to treat conditions like depression and anxiety

Children with mental health disorders aren't receiving the treatment they need, according to new research.

The analysis, which combined data from 40 studies conducted around the globe, found that only 38% of children and teenagers with mental health disorders obtained treatment — and the rates were even lower for depression and anxiety disorders, both key contributors to the ongoing youth mental health crisis.

The research, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also illustrates barriers to health care in poorer nations. While the treatment rate in wealthy countries was 43%, children in lower-middle income countries — such as Nicaragua and Cambodia — received care at a rate of just 6%.

The team of researchers concluded that treatment was "unsatisfactorily low" and that targeted policies are needed to improve access to care.

A growing body of evidence suggests U.S. children's mental health has been worsening since at least 2016, but was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal guidelines now recommend all youth age 8 and older be screened for anxiety; those over 12 should also be screened for depression. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that teen girls are experiencing "alarming" levels of suicidal thoughts and sadness, as well as increased sexual violence. The report also found that more than half of queer teens experienced poor mental health, which Penn Medicine experts have attributed to a rise in anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Lack of access to treatment is due to a number of factors, including a shortage of health care providers. The JAMA researchers suggested that primary care providers could be trained in mental health assessment and treatment to fill in gaps. Telemedicine, which can reduce logistical barriers like travel and wait times, is another potential tool.

The meta-analysis included data collected between 1984 and 2017, drawn from 310,584 children under age 17. Though it examined treatment rates for a number of common mental disorders — including post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and the "full spectrum" of anxiety diagnoses — it did not include research on treatment for autism spectrum or bipolar disorders.

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