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Majority of Seriously Ill Youth Do Not Receive Treatment

Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC)

May 21, 2015

The number of young people in the United States with mental health problems decreased in recent years and the rate of treatment increased, yet the most seriously ill still fail to get the treatment they need, according to a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Using data on 53,622 youth between the ages of 6 and 17 years, Mark Olfson, MD, MPH, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, and his colleagues analyzed use of mental health services over time. The researchers found that treatment rates grew significantly faster among young people with serious impairment than among those with mild illness.

The percentage of severely impaired young people who accessed mental health services grew from 26.2 percent during the period 1996-1998 to 43.9 percent in 2010-2012. Although this is a positive trend, it indicates that more than half of children and adolescents who struggle with mental health issues do not get help.

"The new findings might help efforts to increase mental health treatment of children and adolescents who are in the greatest need. Many children and adolescents in America are known by their parents to have serious mental health problems but nevertheless they do not receive treatment," said Dr. Olfson.

"This suggests that primary care physicians, schools, and others who are concerned with child mental health need to do more to increase parents' awareness of the availability of safe and effective treatments for ADHD, anxiety disorders, depression, and the other common psychiatric issues of childhood and adolescence."

The use of mental health treatment among youth with less severe or no impairment increased from 6.7 percent to 9.6 percent over the same period, raising concerns about growing numbers of children and adolescents who may be receiving unnecessary psychiatric medications.
The title of the paper is "Trends in mental health care among children and adolescents."

The co-authors are Benjamin G. Druss, MD, MPH, and Steven C. Marcus, PhD.

Funding for this research was provided by a grant (U19 HS021112) from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and by the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. For more information, visit or

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