Vanderbilt Child Health Policy poll: One third of Tennessee kids with mental health conditions

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

The Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy released today an analysis today of a poll focused on child mental health. 

Researchers polled 1,100 Tennessee parents before the pandemic began and found respondents reported roughly 30% of children between the ages of six and 17 have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as ADHD, anxiety and depression. About 20% said their child had been diagnosed with two or more mental health conditions and 10% reported that they were unsure how to discuss suicide with their children or be able to identify warning signs. 

The COVID pandemic has likely further worsened child mental health due to COVID-related issues including  widespread parental job loss and looming evictions.

“COVID-19 disrupted the routines of children across the state, creating stress for parents and children alike.” said Stephen Patrick, MD, MPH, a neonatologist and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy. “Now more than ever, parents should not be afraid to talk to their kids about mental health well-being.” 

Catherine Fuchs, MD, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science and Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), said she anticipates children and parents alike are currently dealing with more stress and challenges. Fuchs was initially struck by the abnormally large number of parents reporting children having anxiety, depression and ADHD. 

Dr. Catherine Fuchs, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Vanderbilt University (Photo: Monroe Carell Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt )
Dr. Catherine Fuchs, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Vanderbilt University (Photo: Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt )

The most common mental health diagnoses:

  • ADHD- 16%
  • Anxiety- 11%
  • Depression- 8%

School-based interventions are really important for children due to availability, but the “current situation with COVID-19 and the inability to be at school creates a significant gap in terms of services for children,” said Fuchs, and current resources may be impacted by the recent school budgets. 

Untreated mental illness in children can impact social development, lower self-confidence and affect school concentration. Mental health issues often go undiagnosed due to being addressed as bad behavior, according to Fuchs. 

“Mental health problems often present through behavioral changes and it’s very easy for people to just assume the child is having ‘bad behavior’ rather than the behavior is a manifestation of an inner state,” said Fuchs.

What people need to know, said Fuchs, that the study has shown the importance of mental health discussion.

“There’s so much stigma around mental health issues that people don’t really talk about it that much. The beauty of this study is that parents talked about it. They acknowledged significant concern about their children but that’s paired with parents making the observation that they don’t know how to talk to their children about their worries,” said Fuchs. 

“For policy makers, for individuals involved in public health, recognizing that to help the children you have to pair it with guiding parents in the discussions and in educating the parents in what to watch for,” said Fuchs.  

  Mental health problems often present through behavioral changes and it's very easy for people to just assume the child is having 'bad behavior.'   – Dr. Catherine Fuchs

The Tennessee General Assembly recently declared suicide a state crisis, and more than 500 young Tennesseans have died from suicide in the past 10 years. 

It’s important for parents to understand that addressing mental health issues in children should take different approaches depending on the child’s age. Parents should also address their own mental health issues in order to create a better environment for their children, said Fuchs.

The Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy expects to publish the poll annually and release the data throughout the year. This was the first year for the poll’s publication.