Why are we experiencing an epidemic of mental illness in kids?


As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I frequently encounter parents and skeptics who freely share their opinions that much of the reported crisis in children’s mental health is fabricated…a marketing scheme of the pharmaceutical industry, a consequence of poor parenting or a function of misplaced priorities on the part of families. 

Opinions such as these endure because anecdotal data in support of them can be relatively easy to find. There’s an argument to be made that drug company marketing in support of long-acting ADHD medications led to a spike in the number of kids being diagnosed in the early years of the last decade. I see parents who come looking for the “magic pill” to fix their child’s problems and recoil when family-based or behavioral interventions appear more appropriate. I spoke to a colleague recently who quit her job in a publicly-funded clinic because she was sick of parents who needed her to declare their kids sick so that they could obtain disability payments from the government. But these situations are by far the exceptions as opposed to the rule. I spend my days dealing with kids with real disabilities accompanied by well-meaning parents who more so than anything desire the best for their kids and are willing to try the strategies our practice team recommends. 

In an earlier post, I shared data from a study examining the prevalence of mental health disorders among kids entering the first grade. Here are some of my hypotheses as to why over 20% of U.S. kids meet criteria for at least one mental disorder:

Rates of mental illness are a reflection of the struggle kids and families face in responding to the external demands placed upon them by our culture. First graders shouldn't need to carry planners. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my 32 years as a doc is the increase in academic expectations schools place upon kids. My youngest daughter had about the same volume of homework in the first grade that I had in the seventh grade in what was then an elite public school system in Ohio. Most kids I see with ADHD come in because of challenges with organizational skills and work completion. Kids aren't generally getting a diagnosis without experiencing significant difficulties keeping up in school.

The biggest change I’ve seen in the composition of my practice involves the number of kids struggling with anxiety. The pressures on kids to succeed both academically and socially are unprecedented.

The general breakdown of the family. The maladaptive choices parents make in seeking to fill the emptiness in their lives have consequences for kids. This is the primary reason I quit doing community mental health. The extent of the trauma kids are exposed to is staggering. In utero exposure to alcohol and drugs. Physical and sexual abuse at the hands of substance-abusing boyfriends and girlfriends who are in and out of the home - and in and out of the lives of the children growing up in those homes.

I was far more overwhelmed by the level of spiritual poverty working in the city than the economic poverty experienced by the families I met. One of my colleagues began working in a mental health center for kids this past December. Of the first fifty patients she saw in her new role, one came from a family that attends church on a regular basis! I meet many families who need a pastor more than they need a psychiatrist. Suburban kids aren't immune.

The consequences of a post-modern culture with an emphasis upon relative values and the lack of moral absolutes. I spend much of my talking to kids and teenagers who may be anxious, depressed or suicidal. The destruction of accepted standards of right and wrong behavior make things worse for kids vulnerabile to anxiety or impulsive behavior.

This vulnerability comes into play when sexual boundaries are crossed. Many teens don’t yet have the necessary emotional maturity to manage the intensity of feelings when relationships become sexual. Kids who think too much or have a difficult time letting things go often become depressed or exhibit self-injurious behavior in response to the ups and downs of relationships. The breakdown of standards of absolute right and wrong has resulted in kids (and parents) exposed to intense emotions they’re not equipped to deal with…a situation that frequently precipitates symptoms of mental illness in teens.

Better recognition of symptoms of mental illness among educators and professionals. Unquestionably, this is a big factor…except for autism, where studies have suggested that only a small percentage of the increased prevalence of the condition can be attributed to better diagnosis. Pediatricians in particular have become much more proficient at identifying kids at risk for conditions such as ADHD and depression.

The interplay of environment and genetics. We know that kids exposed to alcohol and tobacco in utero are likely to develop ADHD and experience learning disabilities. A landmark study demonstrated that exposure to tobacco smoke during the third trimester of pregnancy appears to be especially toxic for children with two identical copies of a specific gene associated with ADHD, resulting in an 8-fold greater risk of the condition. 

Here’s what I do know:

  • Every kid and every family needs to know Jesus
  • The church is called to make disciples
  • As the church, we’re called to share God’s love with kids with mental illnesses and their families, REGARDLESS OF THE CAUSE.

This is an updated version of a post originally published at church4everychild.org on April 24, 2016.



Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we’ve developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families to better understand the nature of trauma in children and teens, Jolene Philo’s series on PTSD in children, and series on other mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHDanxiety and Asperger’s Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teenspediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.