For youth, mental illness is familiar

Study finds 8.3% suffer for half of any given month

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WASHINGTON — Go to a busy street in your community and count the next 25 adolescents who walk, bike, skateboard, stroll or saunter past. Odds are that two (8.3 percent to be exact) would own up to having experienced 14 or more days in the last month that he or she considered "mentally unhealthy," according to a comprehensive report on the mental health of American youth issued last week.

Between 2005 and 2010, roughly 2 million American adolescents between 12 and 17 acknowledged that for more than half of the previous month, they routinely felt sad, angry, disconnected, stressed out, unloved or willing to hurt themselves -- or others.

These distressed kids would be most likely to come from a household living above the federal poverty line -- but not by much (from a household of three, for instance, with income between $20,000 and $40,000 a year). But those living in poverty or even relative affluence were only a little less likely to report they experienced persistent mental distress.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in 2010, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 12 and 17.

The burden of mental illness among American children is high, according to a compendium of statistics and data pulled together and released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It combines results from nine separate federal data-collection efforts that measure a range of populations in health status, health-related behaviors and demographic factors. In any given year, between 13 percent and 20 percent of American children from ages 3 to 17 experience a mental disorder -- a prevalence rate that's on the rise since 1994.

The experts acknowledge that rising rates of childhood mental illness may reflect more widespread awareness of conditions such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and depression -- to name two of the most common mental afflictions -- and with that, a greater likelihood they will be diagnosed.

But some researchers believe the rise in childhood mental illness may, in part, reflect changed "environmental factors" in children's lives -- not just industrial pollutants but changes in the social environments of their schools and families, the technologies they use, the foods they eat. The rise of autism spectrum disorders has been linked to prenatal exposure to car exhaust, but also to the trend of later parenting. ADHD has been linked to maternal smoking, but some also think the rise in diagnoses can be attributed in part to larger classrooms, increased pressure to boost test scores and reduced tolerance for disruption.