HealthDay News — The number of U.S. children and teens being treated for mental health issues has risen by about 50% in the past 20 years, though most are presenting with mild symptoms, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Mark Olfson, MD, MPH, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City, and colleagues used a set of government surveys done between 1996 and 2012. The researchers found that from 1996 to 1998, 9.2% of U.S. children aged 6 to 17 received mental health treatment annually. By 2012, that figure had risen to 13.3%.

Children with less severe or no impairment accounted for much of the increase in mental health treatment. By 2012, 4.19 million received treatment — versus 2.74 million per year in the 1996 to 1998 period. However, Olfson told HealthDay, the relative increase in treatment was greater among children with more severe problems: By 2012, 43.9% were receiving mental health services, compared with only 26.2% in the late 1990s. For youths with less severe or no impairment, the increase was from 6.7 to 9.6%. Both psychotherapy and medication use increased over the years.

There was also an unexpected positive finding, Olfson said: The number of children with severe impairments actually went down over time — from almost 13% in the 1990s to just under 11% by 2012. “The decline we found in severe impairment paints a more hopeful picture,” he said. “In many ways, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”


  1. Olfson M et al. N Engl J Med. 2015; doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1413512.