Schools Key to Reaching Kids With Mental Health Needs, Experts Say

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WEDNESDAY, Oct. 8, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Schools can play a crucial role in helping the 10 percent to 20 percent of children worldwide who would benefit from some form of mental health treatment, experts say.

About 75 percent of adults who use mental health services had a diagnosable disorder before age 18, according to a new series on mental health interventions in schools published Oct. 7 in The Lancet Psychiatry.

But in the United States and other wealthy nations, only one-quarter of children with a mental health problem get diagnosed or treated, and the percentage is much lower in poorer nations, the authors of the series said.

"Mental illness often starts in adolescence but doesn't end in adolescence: it is a life-long disorder," Dr. Mina Fazel, a child psychiatrist at the University of Oxford in England and lead author of the series, said in a journal news release.

"It is therefore essential to find innovative ways to approach treatment and to reach young people to maximize their academic, emotional and social development, and schools are where children spend much of their time," Fazel added.

Behavioral disorders and anxiety are the most common mental health issues among schoolchildren, and depression becomes more common in the later years of high school, according to the authors.

Left untreated, mental health disorders can hinder many areas of a child's development and have a damaging impact on their schooling, long-term career choices and relationships, Fazel and colleagues pointed out in the news release.

While some experts advocate routine mental health screening in schools, critics raise concerns about labeling and stigmatizing students.

"If 10 percent of children had diabetes, we wouldn't be saying that screening was a bad thing. Schools provide a platform to access large proportions of young people, and the vast majority of children picked up by screening would not need complex interventions," Fazel said.

A number of mental health interventions have been tested in schools, classrooms and among selected students and shown to be effective, the researcher said.

"We know what works, but where we fall down is implementing this on a large scale in schools. We also need national policies to help education and mental health services work more closely together," Fazel said.

It's been shown that children prefer to be seen in school rather than outside school, she added. "We need to have an approach that is child-focused and to do this, health and education must become more closely aligned," Fazel concluded.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about children's mental health.