Scientists Identify the 4 Worst States for Teen and Child Mental Health

These states are failing their kids in two major ways. 

The place a person grows up can determine a lot of things about them, from how much they exercise to their testosterone levels in adulthood. One thing that should absolutely not be determined by zip code is mental health. Unfortunately, new research published Wednesday in JAMA Pediatrics shows that is indeed the case in some parts of the United States. According to this analysis, several states consistently let their kids down when it comes to identifying and treating mental health conditions.

The letter leverages data collected as part of the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, which surveyed the parents of 46.6 million kids under the age of 18. The authors Daniel Whitney, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Department of Physical Medicine and Mark Peterson, Ph.D., a clinical researcher in the same department, estimate that 16.5 percent of people under the age of 18 have at least one mental health condition. That amounts to roughly 7.7 million kids and teens.

Even more alarmingly, they found that 49.5 percent of kids across the country who were diagnosed with a mental health condition didn’t get the treatment they needed for it.

“I hope people take away from this that mental health disorders are a problem for children and adolescents, and that we should all learn to start talking about these conditions regardless of age,” Whitney tells Inverse.

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Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama and Utah all had some of the highest rates of mental health conditions. In each of those states more than fifty percent of kids with mental health conditions don't receive care. 

4 States Where Kids Really Suffer

The fact that nearly half of American kids diagnosed with a mental health condition don’t get treated is already a worrying statistic. But it’s even worse on the state level for Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah, which stand out from the rest for two reasons: They had some of the highest rates of mental health disorders in the country, and the children who live there were more likely to not receive care for those conditions.

None of those states actually had the highest percentage of mental health conditions — that distinction goes to Maine, where 27.2 percent of kids in their survey reported at least one condition, such as depression or anxiety. When the team broke their data into quarters, however, they found that 13 states had rates of mental health conditions that ranged from 20 percent of the population to 27.2. Those states were New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Utah and Illinois.

What makes Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Utah so unique, however, is that they also were in the bottom when the team analyzed a different variable: how many of those kids who reported mental health cases actually got care. In that regard, they were also in the bottom quarter of states in the country, which means that over 53 percent of cases go untreated.

It’s hard to say why those states failed on both counts, says Whitney, though other research has pointed to a few explanations. Data from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry indicates that there is a “severe” shortage of child psychiatrists in all but seven states. Each of the states highlighted in this recent JAMA study has a severe shortage of child psychiatrists by AACAP’s estimates, too. In Alabama, for example, there are eight child psychiatrists per 100,000 kids. In Mississippi, there are six per every 100,000.

mental health maps states
Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Utah all tended to leave over 53 percent of mental health conditions in children untreated. 

Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Texas, San Antonio who was not involved in the study, told CNN that families are often concerned that insurance won’t cover the costs of mental health care. “Mental health treatment is not usually a once-every-couple-months type of environment,” she said. “For families struggling to make ends meet, the expenses can pose a real challenge.”

“State-level policies regarding accessibility and affordability for mental health services can also have a large impact on improving overall health for individuals, and especially for children and adolescents,” says Whitney. The point of his analysis, however, was simply to put a conversation about mental health out into the open — especially in places where the state of care for children is sub-par.

“Maximizing our mental health is very important,” he says, “and we owe it to ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities to do so.”