Faculty Articles

The Prevalence of Serious Emotional Disturbance: A Re-Analysis of Community Studies

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Journal of Child & Family Studies





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The goal of these analyses was to use existing data to provide an empirically-based estimate of the prevalence in the population of Serious Emotional Disturbance (SED) in children and adolescents, to assist States in their task, required under PL 102-321, of including such estimates in their applications for Block Grant funds. Seven data sets were identified that could provide estimates of SED. The principal investigators agreed on common definitions of the key components of SED: a psychiatric diagnosis and significant functional impairment. Two definitions of impairment were used: domain-specific (impairment in one or more of three areas of functioning) and global (in the worst 10% over all). They also defined a set of correlates and risk factors for SED: age, gender, race/ethnicity, and poverty. Investigators then reanalyzed their own data, using these standard definitions, and calculated the proportion of SED youth who received mental health care. The median estimate of SED with global impairment was 5.4%, with a range from 4.3% to 7.4%. Estimates of SED with domain-specific impairment ranged from 5.5% to 16.9% (median 7.7%). Rates were slightly higher in boys. There were no clear ethnic differences. Poverty doubled the risk of SED. Only one SED child in four had recently received mental health care. Estimates of SED are critically dependent on the method used to define diagnosis and functional impairment. Using common definitions, seven studies produced fairly consistent estimates, which were similar to the estimate of prevalence of Serious Mental Illness (SMI) in adults. Implications for the estimate of State-by-State prevalence rates are discussed.



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