Unmet Need for Mental Health Care Among U.S. Children

Variation by Ethnicity and Insurance Status

Published in: American Journal of Psychiatry, v. 159, no. 9, Sep. 2002, p. 1548-1555

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2002

by Sheryl H. Kataoka, Lily Zhang, Kenneth B. Wells

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OBJECTIVE: Policy discussions regarding the mental health needs of children and adolescents emphasize a lack of use of mental health services among youth, but few national estimates are available. The authors use three national data sets and examine ethnic disparities in unmet need (defined as having a need for mental health evaluation but not using any services in a 1-year period) to provide such estimates. METHOD: The authors conducted secondary data analyses in three nationally representative household surveys fielded in 1996-1998: the National Health Interview Survey, the National Survey of American Families, and the Community Tracking Survey. They determined rates of mental health service use by children and adolescents 3-17 years of age and differences by ethnicity and insurance status. Among the children defined as in need of mental health services, defined by an estimator of mental health problems (selected items from the Child Behavior Checklist), the authors examined the association of unmet need with ethnicity and insurance status. RESULTS: In a 12-month period, 2%-3% of children 3-5 years old and 6%-9% of children and adolescents 6-17 years old used mental health services. Of children and adolescents 6-17 years old who were defined as needing mental health services, nearly 80% did not receive mental health care. Controlling for other factors, the authors determined that the rate of unmet need was greater among Latino than white children and among uninsured than publicly insured children. CONCLUSIONS: These findings reveal that most children who need a mental health evaluation do not receive services and that Latinos and the uninsured have especially high rates of unmet need relative to other children. Rates of use of mental health services are extremely low among preschool children. Research clarifying the reasons for high rates of unmet need in specific groups can help inform policy and clinical programs.

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