New epidemic for children - mental illness

The writer is a UNMC pediatrician and president-elect of the Nebraska Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Less than a century ago, and for all of recorded history before that, diseases such as polio, diphtheria, tetanus and others, killed and maimed generations of children. Thanks to modern medical advances such as immunizations and sanitation, as well as efforts of health care providers everywhere, many of the devastating epidemics that caused the death or serious ill health of a child have been relatively rare in the past generation.

Today, there are new epidemics that threaten the children of Nebraska. These are not caused by microbes, but have nevertheless spread through communities with virulence.

Pediatricians and other health care providers have another set of challenges to face as they work to improve the health of our children. This new set of epidemics will require us to rethink some of the skills that health professionals of the future will need.

Today, serious mental illness is the reason for 1 in 10 pediatric hospitalizations. The statistics are staggering:

  • 1 in 7 children is taking one or more psychiatric medications for mental illness;
  • 1 in 5 children suffer from eating disorders, persistent low mood, self-harm behaviors, or other life and health threatening behaviors;
  • suicide is the third most common cause of death in adolescents. 

Everywhere in our country, but particularly in the rural and underserved areas of our state, these epidemics are growing rapidly.

Left untreated, these mental health conditions often persist into adulthood. Children with mental health problems can grow into adults with mental health problems. These problems leave scars on their lives and those of their loved ones just as cruelly as polio or smallpox did in the past. In addition, it limits their capacity to become productive happy adults who can contribute positively to the community.

Primary health care providers who work with children are in an ideal position to detect the issues that may lead to mental health problems. They also can provide early counseling, support, and when necessary, treatment and ongoing monitoring of these conditions among patients and their families.

The changing face of illness in children will require new approaches and new skills to address the growing epidemic.

We must introduce new health care delivery models that allow providers to address mental health and behavioral health in the primary care setting. An essential part of that would be to incorporate behavioral health education more fully into pediatric training, and equip the new generation of pediatricians with the skills and knowledge they need to build their competence to identify prevent, or effectively address behavioral issues at their earliest beginnings.

We also need to continue research into new and innovative therapies and preventive strategies to help children and families who struggle with this morbidity in order to restore their health and wellbeing.

Our success in keeping our families and children healthy requires that we continue to look ahead and adjust to their changing needs.

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu and follow us on social media.

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Vicky Cerino
UNMC Public Relations
(402) 559-5190