How Mental Health Disorders Affect Youth

Youth with mental health disorders often experience difficulties in a variety of settings including within their own families at home, in school, and in the community.


Frequently, because of their behavior, youth with mental health disorders pose challenges to parents and siblings and are sometimes singled out and blamed for family distress and disruption. Family relationships often become strained because parents and caregivers do not know how to help their children or themselves. The parental relationship is challenged, which may lead to marital discord. The challenges may affect the family’s relationship with relatives as well as its social network, which may isolate the family from potential sources of support. Sometimes this cycle of difficult family interactions leads to social isolation.


Some youth with mental health disorders have a difficult time succeeding in school. It is usually not because they do not want to succeed. Instead, behaviors, thoughts, and emotions related to their disorders interfere with their ability to do well. These same problems often lead to disciplinary actions in school even though the cause of the difficulty may be related to their mental health.

Elementary and Middle School

Youth with mental health disorders are more likely to be unhappy at school, be absent, or be suspended or expelled. Their learning is negatively impacted because of poor concentration, distractibility, inability to retain information, poor peer relationships, and aggressive behavior. They also may be withdrawn and difficult to engage.

  • During any given school year, children and youth with mental health disorders may miss as many as 18 to 22 days.1
  • The rates of suspension and expulsion of children and youth with mental disorders are three times higher than their peers.2

High School

Youth in high school with mental health disorders are more likely to fail or drop out of school compared to their peers in the general population. They tend to engage in high-risk behaviors including drug and alcohol use and/or suicide attempts, especially those youth who may be significantly depressed because they are shunned or marginalized.

  • Up to 14 percent of youth with mental health disorders receive mostly Ds and Fs, compared to 7 percent for all children with disabilities.3
  • Youth with untreated mental illness have high rates of absenteeism and tardiness. Referral to a school-based mental health center or to counseling can help to reduce absenteeism rates by 50 percent and tardiness rates by 25 percent.4
  • Of students with disabilities in the special education system, those with emotional disorders consistently have the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout rates compared to other disability categories.5 In 2005-2006, 45 percent of students between the ages of 14 and 21 that had received special education services for an emotional disorder under IDEA Part B dropped out.6
  • Only 32 percent of students with a serious mental illness continue onto postsecondary education.7

Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems

Fifty percent of youth in the child welfare system and sixty-seven percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder.8 Children and youth with mental health disorders in the child welfare system are

  • less likely to be placed in permanent homes;9
  • more likely to be placed out-of-home to access services;10
  • more likely to be placed in restrictive and/or costly services, such as juvenile detention or residential treatment;11 and
  • more frequently treated in emergency rooms.12

In addition, young adults leaving the child welfare system experience major mental health challenges and drug and alcohol dependence at significantly higher rates than the general population.13

Despite these numbers, for most youth, mental health distress is episodic, not permanent. With the developmental changes and challenges that youth face normally, especially in adolescence, many experience transitional phases of mood and behavioral changes. Youth and their families can successfully navigate the challenges that come from experiencing a mental health disorder. Those with more persistent mental health challenges usually do very well with treatment, peer and professional supports and services, and a family and social support network.


1 Blackorby & Cameto, 2004
2 Blackorby & Cameto, 2004
3 Blackorby, Cohorst, Garza, & Guzman 2003
4 Gall, Pagano, Desmond, Perrin, & Murphy, 2000
5 U.S. Department of Education, Report to Congress, 2009
6 U.S. Department of Education, Report to Congress, 2011
7 Government Accountability Office, 2008
8 Burns et al., 2004; Skowyra & Cocozza, 2006
9 Smithgall, Gladden, Yang, & George, 2005
10 Hurlburt et al., 2004
11 U.S. House of Representatives, 2004; Pottick, Warner, & Yoder, 2005
12 U.S. House of Representatives, 2004; Pottick, Warner, & Yoder, 2005
13 Pecora et al., 2003

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