Mental disabilities in children include both developmental problems of the brain and mental health conditions, such as autism, and, unfortunately, a child’s family income plays a major role in their chances of being diagnosed with such a disorder. A recent study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh has revealed that childhood mental disability rates in the United States have reached a historic high, which has health care professionals scrambling to find better treatment and prevention strategies for at-risk children.

“This study demonstrates what a lot of pediatricians have been noticing for several years – that they are seeing more neurodevelopmental and mental health problems in their clinical practices,” Dr. Amy Houtrow, associate professor of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Pediatrics at University of Pittsburgh, said in a statement. “As we look toward the future, the pediatric health care workforce and system needs to adapt to assure the best possible health and functional outcomes for children with disabilities related to neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions.”

Houtrow and her colleagues gathered their data using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Study. Between 2001 and 2011, the CDC evaluated children’s ability to perform task at home and at school. Parents of children participating in the survey were asked to report limitations or disabilities their child may be suffering from as well as any physical (breathing, vision, or hearing problems), development, or mental health conditions (epilepsy, ADHD, or mental/emotional/behavioral problems).

Although physical health disabilities among children experienced a 12 percent drop, neurodevelopment or mental health disabilities increased by 21 percent over the course of the 10-year period. Parents were also asked to specify their family’s household income in completing the survey. Children whose families were living below the poverty line were still at a higher risk of development a mental health disorder compared to children from family’s with a higher income. However, rates of children with mental disabilities from families at or above 400 percent of the poverty line increased by 28.4 percent in the past decade.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 21 percent of low-income children between the age of 6 and 17 have some type of mental health problem. Around 57 percent of these low-income children are part of a household that is below the federal poverty level. Several factors contribute to low-income children’s risk of suffering from a mental health disability, including a lack of access to proper health care, a family history of mental illness, and exposure to an unhealthy environment. Between 75 and 80 percent of children in need of mental health services do not receive them.

Source: Larson K, Olson L, Houtrow A, et al. Changing Trends of Childhood Disability, 2001–2011. Pediatrics. 2014.