Child Mental Health Now Versus the Past

Of note, this post is adapted from a similar one that appeared last week in my Psychology Today blog.

From many headlines today, it is easy to get the impression that children and adolescents are struggling more than ever these days.  At the same time, the mental health system designed to help our kids and their families has been under intense criticism for being either completely inaccessible or for being too accessible when it comes to medication treatment.

Churchman photo -sunrise

Image courtesy of John Churchman and

Few would argue that there are serious issues to confront right now.  However, it may also be useful to take a step back and look at how levels of problems now compare to the past.  While good statistics in many areas have not been available for that long, what trends are evident for many important metrics of youth mental health may be surprising.  Here are some examples.

Suicide.  The rate of completed youth suicides (we now try to stay away from the phrase “successful” suicide for obvious reasons) has been steadily declining.  The incidence rose steeply, especially for males, from the 1960s until the early 1990s and has been coming down ever since, according to the Center for Disease  Control (CDC).

Teen Pregnancy Rates.  According to the government’s Office of Adolescent Health, the teen pregnancy rate among adolescent females has been cut in half from 1990 to 2012, across many different ethnic groups.

Delinquency.  The number of youth who are incarcerated have dropped from a high of 381 per 100,000 in 1995 to 225 per 100,000 in 2010 according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Substance Use.  The rate of smoking in teens is at an all-time low, according to the Monitoring the Future study that has surveyed substance use for decades.  Cannabis use is also down from peaks in the 1970s, although has been trending up.  Alcohol use in teens is also at historic lows, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Psychiatric Disorders.  As has been well covered in many venues, there have been significant increases in the rates of many psychiatric disorders, including ADHD, autism, and bipolar disorder.  What is less clear, however, is the degree to which these numbers reflect an actual increase in behavior versus other factors such as an improved detection rates or a lowering of the diagnostic threshold.  A study by Achenbach and coworkers several years ago that looked at quantitative levels of child behavior problems using the same instrument over a 23 year time span found some increases in overall levels from the 1970s to the early 1990s which then began to fall by the end of the millennium.

Child Abuse and Bullying.  Reports from the Crimes Against Children Research Center shows a steady decline in the rate of child abuse since the early 1990s, particularly physical and sexual abuse as well as violent victimization at school.  The reports utilize government data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.

When it comes to Vermont, many of these metrics look even better in weighing our place relative to other states, especially when it comes to teen pregnancy and youth incarceration. One notable exception, however, is adolescent cannabis use.

There are still many things to work on to help children and their families thrive when it comes of behavioral wellness.  At the same time, however, we also need to recognize that compared to other time periods (particularly the early 1990s for some strange reason), kids today are really not behaving that terribly and now doesn’t look like a terrible time to be a kid.


Achenbach, T.M., Dumenci, L., & Rescorla, L.A. (2003). Are American children’s problems still getting worse? A 23-year comparison. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31, 1-11.

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