Sept. 11, 2019

U.S. Should Create National Agenda to Improve Child and Youth Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Health, Says Report

WASHINGTON – A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls for a comprehensive national agenda to improve mental, emotional, and behavioral (MEB) health in children and youth. Despite advances in research, rates of depression, suicide and self-harm among young people have been increasing. The report finds that new research into factors that influence MEB health, effective interventions, and better ways to implement those interventions on a broad scale are forming a foundation for significantly improving healthy MEB development.

Fostering Healthy Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Development in Children and Youth: A National Agenda includes both policy and research recommendations to address MEB health. The report calls for federal leadership and coordination between public and private partners at the national, state, and community levels to make MEB health a priority, and for them to take full advantage of research on interventions and implementation. MEB disorders not only impose suffering on individuals and their families, they are also costly to society, contributing to school and workforce dropout, incarceration, and homelessness. In 2015, suicide was the No. 2 cause of death among young people ages 15-24, and between 2005 and 2014, the proportion of adolescents experiencing a major depressive episode increased from 8.7 percent to 11.3 percent.

Federal leadership needed to address MEB

The report proposes that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should lead the charge in making child and youth MEB health a national priority by:

"It is our hope that our recommendations, including the creation of a Decade of Children and Youth, will be vital components of an intensive, focused, and sustained effort to improve the deeply concerning mental, emotional, and behavioral health outcomes experienced by many U.S. children and youth," said Thomas Boat, director of CFWELL at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and chair of the committee that conducted the study. "Our report recommends rapid and unwavering action to better foster healthy emotional and behavioral development."

Promoting positive and preventing negative MEB health factors

The report emphasizes that children’s social and physical environments shape their brains, and consequently their behaviors and emotions.  Growing evidence of the interplay among biological, social, and environmental influences on MEB development has profound implications for the design of interventions to promote healthy MEB development. The committee noted that characteristics of the broader society in which the individual, family, and community are situated, such as poverty and economic inequality, systemic racism and discrimination, law- and policy-driven factors, and the marketing of unhealthful products, can influence MEB health.

Research has provided evidence that some strategies can target social and environmental factors that prevent or promote MEB health. Parenting interventions, programs offered through schools, and primary health care can be used to promote healthy MEB development and prevent MEB disorders. For example, schools that promote a positive environment and help young people develop resilience to manage bullying, substance use, or suicidal thoughts can improve outcomes for children and youth. Primary care settings can offer opportunities to provide parenting education and screening for risks to MEB development.

Implementing and scaling up effective intervention

The report recommends that federal agencies support rapid progress in the development and dissemination of effective MEB interventions for large populations by providing funding and other resources. These agencies should support research into promising interventions for MEB health promotion, support states and local communities in developing cross-sector partnerships and innovative funding mechanisms, use economic evaluation tools, and develop strategies for sustainable implementation.

Collecting and assessing data

HHS should collaborate with other agencies, states, and communities to comprehensively assess existing sources of data that track population trends, MEB health and development of children and youth, the factors that influence it, and current efforts to improve MEB health. The agency should also develop a plan for coordinating existing data and starting new data collection efforts, building the capacity to track the status of young people’s MEB development over the course of their lives, children’s exposure to risks for unhealthy MEB development, access by children, youth, and families to effective preventions and health promotion, and MEB programs and policies.

The committee identified directions for future research, including building on the growing body of work that examines ways to promote health MEB development at the population level, and emerging possibilities for reaching people through school-based interventions and the health care system.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on Fostering Healthy Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Development Among Children and Youth — was sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Mental Health Services; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Human Development and Disability; and the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the National Institutes of Health.  The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit

Report Highlights

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Megan Lowry, Media Relations Officer
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