5 Alarming Child and Youth Mental Health Stats You Need to Know

Alexandra Chipurnoi
4 min readMar 16


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience some form of mental illness each year, while 1 in 20 adults experience serious mental illness. However, children are just as prone to experiencing poor mental health, particularly depression and anxiety. In 2020 NAMI reported that 17 percent of youth aged 6–17 were affected by mental health disorders. This was the year of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which only exacerbated mental health issues.

“In many ways, the wider effects of the pandemic and nationwide lockdowns on children and young people have been greater than the COVID-19 infection itself,” wrote researcher Jessica Morris, who contributed to a QualityWatch data analysis on the impact of the pandemic on youth mental health. “Despite being much less at risk of hospitalization from the virus, the youngest members of our society have not escaped unscathed, and we can see a heavy toll on their mental wellbeing and access to health services.”

Among other findings in the QualityWatch report, there was an 81 percent increase in referrals for youth mental health services from April to September 2021, compared to the same period two years prior. The following is a look at other alarming statistics that highlight the severity of the youth mental health crisis in America.

Major Increases in Depression and Anxiety

Even by the onset of the pandemic, there had been dramatic increases in child and adolescent depression and anxiety, with rates increasing by 24 percent and 27 percent, respectively, from 2016 to 2019. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, in 2020 9.2 percent of children in the US (5.6 million) were diagnosed with anxiety issues and 4 percent (2.4 million) were diagnosed with depression. Similarly, roughly 5 million children experienced conduct and behavior issues in 2020, up 21 percent from the year prior.

This alarming trend goes back to the early 2000s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that only 5.4 percent of children aged 6–17 were diagnosed with depression or anxiety in 2003. This figure increased to 8 percent in 2007 and 8.4 percent in 2012.

The Effect of the Pandemic

In 2020 the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago conducted a survey of 1,000 parents throughout the US to see how the pandemic was affecting youth mental health. Seventy-one percent of parents agreed that the pandemic had negatively impacted their child’s mental health, while 69 percent said it “was the worst thing to happen to their child.” Similarly, a survey of 3,300 high school students around the same time found that almost one-third of respondents felt more depressed or unhappy than usual.

CDC data also shows that between March and October 2020, emergency department visits for mental health reasons for children aged 12–17 increased by 31 percent compared to the previous year. The pandemic also worsened disparities in access to mental health services for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, according to a study from the University of Massachusetts.

Children Still Aren’t Receiving the Care They Need

Although more children are experiencing mental health issues, a smaller percentage received the care they needed in 2020 compared to prior years. The National Survey of Children’s Health showed that 80 percent of children requiring mental health services received care in 2020, down slightly from 82 percent in 2016.

However, the CDC notes that only 59.3 percent of children aged 3–17 experiencing anxiety received treatment in 2016. That same year, 78.1 percent of children experiencing depression received treatment.

Suicide and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse and suicidal thoughts are often associated with mental health issues. The CDC notes that in 2018–19, 18.8 percent of adolescents aged 12–17 seriously considered attempting suicide. Even more alarming, 15.7 percent made a suicide plan and 8.9 percent attempted suicide. Regarding substance abuse, 3.2 percent had an illicit drug use disorder and 1.6 percent experienced alcohol use disorder.

Depression and Anxiety Often Occurs Simultaneously

Comorbidity between depression and anxiety is common in children, according to the CDC. In 2016 73.8 percent of children aged 3–17 experiencing depression also reported symptoms of anxiety. Almost half of all children with depression also experienced behavior problems. About 1 in 3 children with anxiety also experienced depression.

Stats for Indicators of Positive Mental Health

Although there is a youth mental health crisis in the US, there are signs that things can improve with more education and increased access to mental health services. Most notably, national data from parent surveys from 2016–19 covering positive mental health indicators found that children aged 3–5 always or mostly showed: positivity (98.7 percent), affection (97 percent), curiosity (93.9 percent), and resilience (87.9 percent).

Similarly, parents of children aged 12–17 reported their child always or mostly showed: curiosity (86.5 percent), persistence (84.7 percent), and self-control (79.8 percent).



Alexandra Chipurnoi