Moving from Awareness to Action in Children’s Mental Health

Turn knowledge into action

By Ileana Arias, PhD (Principal Deputy Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Last week I was pleased to present a keynote address on children’s mental health as a public health issue at a National Summit developed by APA’s Interdivisional Task Force on Children’s Mental Health. Did you know as many as 1 in 5 children in the United States experience a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year, with an estimated annual cost of those disorders at $247 billion?

In addition, when you consider the short- and long-term impacts of child mental disorders on individuals, families and communities, the case is clearly made for making the mental health of our children a public health priority.

Each May, child mental health awareness activities afford an opportunity for public and private stakeholders to exchange ideas and align our agendas on this important issue. However, increasing awareness of child mental health is only a first step.

Psychological research tells us that knowledge change is rarely sufficient on its own to ensure behavior change. For social and societal shifts that move the field from increased awareness to action that improves the overall mental health of our nation’s children, concrete plans that recognize and actively address barriers to success are needed.

Following recommendations in seminal publications such as the Report of the Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health (2000) and the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report, Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities (2009), the next action step  is to decide where and how we can collectively have the biggest population-level impact.

One key factor in those decisions will be having the data to characterize trends of childhood mental disorders over time and impact on population and subgroup health. Public health data can inform better allocation of prevention and treatment resources by increasing our understanding of different disorders, trajectories, and populations affected, as well as modifiable risk and protective factors. Ongoing surveillance data also provide benchmarks to evaluate progress towards impact and increase accountability for resources.

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) supplement, Mental Health Surveillance Among Children — United States, 2005–2011.  This report monitors the number of U.S. children aged 3-17 years who have specific mental disorders or indicators of mental health, using information from different federal data sources collected in 2005-2011.

  • As highlighted in this MMWR, the most prevalent parent-reported diagnosis among children aged 3-17 years was attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which affected an estimated 6.8% of children in 2007.
  • Among adolescents aged 12-17 years, an estimated 4.7% reported illicit drug use in the past year, and 4.2% had an alcohol abuse disorder in the past year.
  • Suicide, which can result from the interaction of mental disorders and other factors, was the second leading cause of death among children aged 12–17 years in 2010.

No parent, grandparent, teacher or friend wants to see a child struggle with these or other mental disorders. We need continued research to ensure our children can go on to lead productive, healthy lives. This report is an important step to better understand these disorders, identify gaps in data, and develop prevention and treatment strategies. The findings also provide a roadmap for continued efforts to protect children’s mental health.

We know that data are important.  In addition, the development, evaluation and implementation of policies, prevention strategies and treatment services are needed. To that end, CDC is also undertaking efforts to:

  • identify and disseminate promising prevention practices,
  • conduct policy evaluations, and
  • expand health education and outreach efforts to promote children’s mental health.

As with all of our public health activities, we can’t do it alone.  We can help build the evidence base on childhood mental disorders and children’s mental health. Psychologists play a critical role in treating and addressing the needs of children with mental disorders and their families.

However, they can also play a valuable role in the prevention of children’s mental disorders. They are crucial in helping create contexts and environments that will not allow the development or exacerbation of mental disorders.

We hope to continue to grow the partnership between public health and psychology as we strive for the same goals of optimal mental health for all children so that they can achieve their best in life.

We’d like to hear from you…

  • What are some concrete ways that public health and psychology can act together to protect and promote children’s mental health?
  • What types of surveillance data would best assist psychologists in accomplishing their mission?

The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


  1. I think that we public health and psychology can promote child mental health by testing if participation in violence prevention workshops impacts the risk for mental health and physical health problems in the childhood.


  2. We recently spent 3 days at UNC ER Psych Unit…they had so many pediatric psych admissions that evening alone they had to turn other departments of the hospital into make shift ER pediatric psych “holding areas”. While we were there we were told they had Joey along with many others on a transfer list to a psych hospital “somewhere else in our State.” Then we were advised to stay in the ER until something became available at the Murdoch Center, which is what Joey would benefit from more so than a psych hospital. The doctors told me the psych hospitals we were on a wait list tend to over medicate and discharge to get the kids in & out. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Since the kids are in a lock down area together, I got to meet, talk and play games with most of them, and I wanted to take every single one home with me. I am still extremely emotional when I think about Tye, Jamal and Andre. Jamal never had a visitor once while we were there 😞. He asked that we stay because his family was coming and he wanted me to meet his baby cousin. Heartbreaking. I was very happy to see your post & the resources available to contact. I’ve just touched on our experience. Joey and the other children were not criminals…they are just kids, and they didn’t understand why they were acting out anymore than anyone else, but were brought in by the police, simply dropped off, and in our case our Psychologist & Psychiatrist at Duke recommended UNC ER when we were in a crisis situation. UNC ER is a crisis situation and I pray for the boys I met there every day. We finally left once we were able to get enough information to determine they could not help. Period. We have gone through all the steps for Joey to attend the Murdoch Center, and are just waiting to find out what they’re committee decides on June 13.


  3. I really like the advice to have a concrete plan to combat mental illness instead of just spreading the information. I don’t know anyone with a mental illness, but I know the effect that being isolated from your peers can have on a kid’s mental health. The sooner that these children are given a proper plan to become healthier, the better their futures will be.


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