When the school called, Marina (her name has been changed) did not know exactly what to expect. Her 10-year-old son might be unexceptional, but his grades were average or slightly above, and he’d recently, somewhat surprisingly begun to excel in music he didn’t get that talent from her, she enjoyed telling friends.

When Marina entered the classroom, her son’s teacher was seated at his desk marking homework papers, and, looking up, he greeted her without a smile. Marina felt the tension knot her stomach and sunk into the nearest child-sized chair. After a few preliminaries, the teacher got straight to the point: “The school psychiatrist has diagnosed ADHD and recommended medication,” he said of her son. Later, confiding in her former roommate, Marina’s eyes filled with tears. “Believe me, I was shocked," she said, "but somehow I managed to say I wasn’t ready to put him on drugs.”

Even if, personally, you don’t know anyone who suffers from ADHD, you probably know what those letters stand for (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and in all likelihood you’re familiar as well with the names of popular drugs prescribed for the condition (Ritalin, Adderall). Childhood mental illness is just that prevalent… or so we are told. A new Canadian study, though, questions whether there’s any truth underpinning all the media noise. The research team discovered no increase in the prevalence of symptoms of mental illness in kids and teens, with one notable (and unsurprising) exception: ADHD. “In fact, the results suggest that some symptoms of mental illness and behavioral problems seem to be decreasing (i.e., indirect aggression, conduct disorder, and suicide attempts),” wrote the authors of the new study.

Does Less Stigma Increase Diagnoses?

For the current study, Dr. Ian Colman, associate professor at the University of Ottawa, and his co-researchers sought to examine whether, as commonly reported in studies conducted in the United States and other countries, childhood mental illness is on the rise. They dove into the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, examining data from 11,725 participants between the ages of 10 and 11, who provided data at intervals during the years 1994 through 2005; 10,574 "tweens" (ages 12 through 13) during the years 1996 through 2007; and a final group of 9,835 teens (ages 14 through 15) during the years 1998 through 2009. At intervals, participants described their feelings and behaviors in a questionnaire, while also noting the frequency of symptoms.

After analysis of the data, the researchers discovered one expected result yet also a couple of surprises. “The mean hyperactivity score increased over time in participants between 10 and 11 and those between 12 and 13,” wrote the authors. In other words, more tweens are being diagnosed with ADHD. However, fewer participants reported attempting suicide. Plus, physical aggression and indirect aggression, such as antisocial behavior, declined.

The researchers suggest that recent efforts to destigmatize mental illness may have worked, and this has led to increased recognition of symptoms. While many may argue causes and treatments, the fact is a label combined with no judgment brought a familiar behavior pattern to our collective attention.

Source: McMartin SE, Kingsbury M, Dykxhoorn J, Colman I. Time trends in symptoms of mental illness in children and adolescents in Canada. CMAJ. 2014.