Childhood mental health disabilities on the rise

child with puzzle

(CNN) – Over the past half century, the prevalence of childhood disabilities in the United States has been on the rise, possibly due to an increased awareness about these issues. Now a study published in this week’s online issue of Pediatrics suggests the nature of those newly diagnosed disabilities is changing.

The report, “Changing Trends of Childhood Disability, 2001-2011” found the number of American children with disabilities rose 16% over a 10-year period. While there was a noted decline in physical problems, there was a large increase in disabilities classified as neurodevelopmental conditions or mental health issues, such as ADHD and autism.

“We found that that physical disability health conditions in children were down 12%, but the disabilities related to mental and neurodevelopmental health went up 21%,” said lead study author Dr. Amy Houtrow, chief of the Division of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Researchers looked at data collected from the well-known National Health Interview Survey between 2001-2002 and 2010-2011. In the survey, parents were asked to fill out a questionnaire indicating if their children had any health disadvantages such as speech and language disabilities, ADHD, intellectual disabilities, and/or emotional and behavior problems.

They found, not surprisingly, that children from poorer families still had the highest rates of disabilities overall. But they also found that children living in more affluent homes reported the largest increase in disabilities: 28.4% over the study period.

“The disparities were interesting and not really expected,” said Houtrow. “But the steepness in the rise (of disabilities in affluent children) makes me think there has to be different stresses, environmental experiences and or other risk factors in these families. All this needs to be studied.”

Houtrow said the changes could be due to a number of things. For instance, people in higher economic groups are often more comfortable dealing with children’s disabilities, both mental and physical, she said, so they’re more likely to seek help from their doctor. This could lead to more accurate reporting from that income bracket.

“Poorer families have other things to worry about first, including putting food on the table,” Houtrow said. “Their children’s learning disabilities are of concern, but they need to deal with other things, like hunger, lack of good health care and other factors.”

This is certainly not the first study to see an upward trend in mental health disabilities in children in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in 2008 that saw a significant jump in ADHD and learning disabilities. And earlier this year, the CDC released another report saying 1 in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, a 30% increase from 1 in 88 two years ago.

Houtrow hopes the study’s findings will open up further investigation into why these trends are happening. The authors concluded that documenting these changes in childhood disabilities is a positive step in developing better prevention methods, and treatments and services for these children.

“I think it’s a call to action,” said Houtrow. “It’s a call to action to the health care system and a call for additional research. And it’s a call to action to parents to be concerned about their child’s development. … Healthy children grow up to be healthy adults. Knowing how to better treat our younger generation is important to this country’s future.”

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