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U.S. Asked to Do More for Kids' Mental Health

Report urges new role in coordinating, funding local prevention efforts

WEDNESDAY, March 25 (HealthDay News) -- A report from private, nonprofit groups calls on the U.S. government to become more involved in protecting and improving the mental health of the nation's youth.

The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine are asking President Barack Obama to create a new agency or commission to oversee and coordinate programs aimed at preventing mental, emotional and behavioral disorders in young people.

An estimated $247 billion is already being spent each year in dealing with these issues, the groups say, but they want more attention and funding on prevention, not just treatment.

Their report calls for a federally devised 10-year plan and better coordination and funding of existing U.S. agencies to promote and deal with children's mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, conduct disorder and substance abuse. A public discussion of the report was set for March 25 in Washington, D.C.

"There is a substantial gap between what is known about preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders and what is actually being done," Kenneth E. Warner, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health and chairman of the committee that wrote the report, said in a news release from its sponsors. "It is no longer accurate to argue that these disorders can never be prevented. Many can. The nation is well-positioned to equip young people with the skills and habits needed to live healthy, happy, and productive lives in caring relationships. But we need to develop the systems to deliver effective prevention programs to a far wider group of children and adolescents."

Up to 20 percent of young people in United States experience a mental health issue each year, the report estimates. And symptoms that start in childhood occur in half of the adults who have mental, emotional and behavioral disorders, it notes.

The report cites several school-, home- and community-based programs that have successful records in preventing such conditions as depression, anxiety, behavioral issues and substance abuse. It also notes that research has shown that working to improve young people's social and emotional skills can help their grades now and in the future.

Programs that the report describes as worth duplicating across the country include:

  • Clarke Cognitive-Behavioral Prevention Intervention, which teaches at-risk adolescents how to handle stress and helps prevent major depression.
  • Good Behavior Game, a school-based program that offers elementary school students rewards, such as extra free time, for appropriate behavior. Studies involving first-graders showed that it greatly reduced incidents of bad behavior and, in subsequent years, reduced incidents of alcohol and drug abuse and lowered rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts.
  • Positive Parenting Program, which gives parents instruction in methods to deal with aggressive behavior or uncooperativeness in their children. Improvements in a child's behavior were apparent even a year after the training ended, the report said.

Though the report calls for federal agencies -- including the Health and Human Services, Education and Justice departments -- to financially and logistically support such local efforts, it also warns that hard evidence of a program's success should be required before it receives any federal backing.

The report also said that screening programs used to find children at greater risk for mental health issues or behavioral problems have value but only under certain conditions. These included programs aimed at finding kids threatened by serious mental health conditions for which effective intervention treatments already exist.

The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine are part of the National Academies, private nonprofits chartered by the U.S. Congress to offer counsel on issues of science, technology and health policy.

More information

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has more about children and mental health.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: National Academy of Sciences, news release, March 23, 2009

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