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Attention deficit leads US kids' mental health problems, CDC reports

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CDC's most comprehensive look yet at mental health shows ADHD affects close to 7 percent of US kids.

The most comprehensive report on specific mental disorders in children shows attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most commonly diagnosed problem in kids aged 3-17, with close to 7 percent of kids having a diagnosis.

Another 3.5 percent have behavioral problems, 3 percent have anxiety and 1.1 percent have autism. For teenagers, addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco are the most common issues, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday.

These percentages translate into millions of children, said CDC’s Ruth Perou, who put the study together. She found that 6.8 percent of U.S. children have ADHD. “That’s about 4.18 million children,” Perou told NBC News.

“This first report of its kind documents that millions of children are living with depression, substance use disorders, ADHD and other mental health conditions,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement.

“No parent, grandparent, teacher or friend wants to see a child struggle with these issues. It concerns us all. We are working to both increase our understanding of these disorders and help scale up programs and strategies to prevent mental illness so that our children grow to lead productive, healthy lives.”

It adds up to a lot of kids. “It is estimated that 13 –20 percent of children living in the United States (up to 1 out of 5 children) experience a mental disorder in a given year and an estimated $247 billion is spent each year on childhood mental disorders,” the report reads.

The report takes data from many other surveys. The estimates on autism spectrum disorder might not be quite up to date. In March, CDC published a survey showing 2 percent of U.S. schoolkids – or about a million children – have been diagnosed with some sort of autism.

Thursday’s report was finished before that latest data came out, Perou said.

Behavioral disorders affect 2.1 million children, Perou says. “We are not looking at whether kids misbehave or are having a bad day,” she said. “What we are talking about is a child incapable of behaving well or playing well with others.”

Children with a diagnosed behavioral disorder, such as oppositional defiance disorder, have constant conflicts with authority that affect their ability to attend school. “They are having such challenges in how they are dealing with emotions or behavior that it impairs their ability to lead their day-to-day lives,” Perou said.

The survey confirms a lot of what experts already knew: autism, conduct disorders and ADHD are more common among boys; depression is more common among girls. More children were diagnosed as they got older.

The data on adolescents aged 12 to 17 show a million teenagers are drug or alcohol abusers, and more than 695,000 are addicted to tobacco. This doesn’t mean casual use or experimentation, but serious addiction, Perou said. “You are looking at something that is debilitating and really impairs their ability to function day to day,” she said.

The good news is that there are treatments for all the disorders, Perou said, and CDC is working to help come up with more approaches that work. “We can make a difference in their lives,” she said.

CDC has information for teachers and parents on spotting mental illness in kids.

The definitions for all the disorders come from the DSM-IV, the guide used by mental health professionals to diagnose and classify disease. A new version, the DSM-V, comes out Friday, and many of the changes have been widely leaked.

Thursday’s report will set a baseline, so that changes in classifying mental health issues that come from changes in the DSM-V can be tracked, Perou said.