The 5 most common mental health disorders in children


A sick child inspires compassion, thoughts of chicken soup, blankets and time off from school. The thought of a mentally ill child, however, makes most people uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, mental illness doesn’t care how old someone is. Mental disorders strike the young and old alike. Most mental disorders are chronic diseases often requiring management and treatment throughout life. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 2005 and 2011, the most common mental disorders experienced by children aged 3 to 17 include:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: 6.8 percent
  • Behavioral/conduct problems: 3.5 percent
  • Anxiety: 3.0 percent
  • Depression: 2.1 percent
  • Autism spectrum disorder: 1.1 percent

Here’s a look at each of them:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), ADHD is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. To most people, this sounds like an ordinary child’s behavior, but ADHD is more severe; ADHD symptoms are strong enough to interfere with a child’s ability to learn, do normal activities and function socially. Medication and psychotherapy are common treatment methods.

Behavioral/conduct problems: Commonly grouped under the umbrella term “conduct disorder,” these disorders affect a child or adolescent’s ability to follow orders and behave appropriately. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, (AACAP), children with these disorders can also engage in destructive behaviors like vandalism, as well as displaying aggression to people and animals. AACAP warns children with these behaviors often have coexisting disorders including substance abuse, anxiety and PTSD.

Anxiety disorders: Anxiety’s a normal part of life – for everyone – but anxiety disorders aren’t. In children, anxiety can make a child avoid certain activities and places, to the point of missing out on important social occasions and harming their performance in school. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports 1 in 8 children are affected by anxiety disorders. Sadly, these disorders often go untreated: The ADAA reports 80 percent of children with anxiety disorders never receive treatment.

Depression: A far more serious problem than sadness, depressive disorders last much longer. The ADAA says instances of major depression last at least two weeks. Like anxiety, depressive disorders in children also go untreated: The ADAA estimates 60 percent of children with depression don’t receive treatment.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD): According to NIMH, a variety of developmental disorders are grouped as ASDs, with a wide range of symptoms and disabilities. Children with ASDs often have difficulty interactive with others, engage in repetitive behaviors, have limited interests and have difficulty functioning in school.


There is a wide range of severity with ASDs; some forms are relatively mild and some patients with these disorders are severely disabled.

Mental illness in children certainly isn’t a pleasant thing to think about, and dealing with children struggling with a disorder can be isolating. So it’s important for parents to realize they’re not alone. A comprehensive report done by the National Research Council in 2009 found between 13 and 20 percent of adolescents in the U.S. dealt with a mental disorder in a given year. Despite the social stigmas, mental health disorders are treatable, manageable and respond well to professional help. Left untreated, mental disorders can seriously hinder education and quality of life.

Located in rural Utah, White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school for boys aged 12 to 17. Our staff of experts provides a compassionate, structured educational environment to help your son reach his full potential. Call our 24/7 helpline anytime for more information.

About the author

Brian Moore is a  20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years.

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