Children's Mental Health Research

CDC and partner agencies are working to understand the prevalence of mental disorders in children and how they impact their lives. Currently, it is not known exactly how many children have any mental disorder, or how often different disorders occur together, because no national dataset is available that looks at all mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders together.

Research on prevalence
Using different data sources
Healthcare providers, public health researchers, educators, and policy makers can get information about the prevalence of children’s mental health disorders from a variety of sources. Data sources, such as national surveys, community-based studies, and administrative claims data (like healthcare insurance claims), use different study methods and provide different types of information, each with advantages and disadvantages. Advantages and disadvantages for different data sources include the following:
  • National surveys have large sample sizes that are needed to create estimates at the national and state levels. However, they also generally use a parent’s report of the child’s diagnosis, which means that the healthcare provider has to give an accurate diagnosis and the parent has to accurately remember what it was.
  • Community-based studies offer the opportunity to observe children’s symptoms, which means that even children who have not been diagnosed or do not have the right diagnosis could be found. However, these studies are typically done in small geographic areas, so findings are not necessarily the same in other communities.
  • Administrative claims are typically very large datasets with information on diagnosis and treatment directly from the providers, which allows tracking changes over time. Because they are recorded for billing purposes, diagnoses or services that would not be reimbursed from the specific health insurance might not be recorded in the data.
Using different sources of data together provides more information because it is possible to describe the following:
  • Children with a diagnosed condition compared to children who have the same symptoms, but are not diagnosed
  • Differences between populations with or without health insurance
  • How estimates for mental health disorders change over time
Knowledge on the prevalence of mental disorders among children informs the work of many health care providers, public health researchers, educators, and policy makers, and any single data source and study methodology can provide valuable insight. However, it is only after prevalence estimates from complementary studies are considered together that distinctions can be made to more deeply inform an assessment of community needs, including diagnosed prevalence versus underlying prevalence, differences between insured and uninsured populations, and how estimates change over time. National surveys, community-based studies, and administrative claims data each provide a different type of information that builds broad understanding. This article presents some of the overarching complexities of the issue, discusses strengths and weaknesses of some common data sources and methodologies used to generate epidemiological estimates, and describes ways in which these data sources complement one another and contribute to a better understanding of the prevalence of pediatric mental disorders.

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