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Preventing Mental, Emotional and Behavioral Disorders in Youth

In 2009, the Institute of Medicine's Committee on the Prevention of Mental Disorders and Substance Abuse Among Children, Youth and Young Adults released "Preventing Mental, Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities." This report captures the wealth of research conducted over the past 15 years on preventing mental, emotional and behavioral (MEB) disorders.

Between 14 and 20 percent of young people have MEBs. MEBs include depression, conduct disorder, and substance abuse. Most MEB disorders have their roots in childhood and adolescence. Among adults reporting a mental or substance use disorder during their lifetime, more than half reported the onset as occurring in childhood or adolescence — including both diagnosable disorders and other problem behaviors such as early substance use, antisocial or aggressive behavior and violence.

Effective interventions are available

This report captures a number of interventions have been proven to be effective in reducing risk for children exposed to serious adversities, such as maternal depression and family disruption. Poverty is also a powerful risk factor and its reduction would have far-reaching effects for multiple negative mental, emotional and behavioral outcomes. Improving family functioning and positive parenting can increase positive outcomes and can moderate poverty-related risk.

Early intervention is key

The potential benefits of preventing MEB disorders are greatest when efforts are focused on young people. Early interventions can be effective in delaying or preventing the onset of such disorders. Evidence of MEB disorders is common and begins early in life. Opportunities are available to prevent MEB disorders and related problems before they occur.

MEB disorder risk factors are well established, preventive interventions are available, and the first symptoms typically precede a disorder by 2 to 4 years. MEB disorder screening can be integrated with routine health care and wellness promotion, as well as in schools, families, and communities.

Strategies for enhancing the psychological and emotional well-being of young people include:

  • Strengthening families by targeting problems such as substance use or aggressive behavior; teaching effective parenting skills; improving communication; and helping families deal with disruptions (such as divorce) or adversities (such as parental mental illness or poverty).
  • Strengthening individuals by building resilience and skills and improving cognitive processes and behaviors.
  • Preventing specific disorders, such as anxiety or depression, by screening individuals at risk and offering cognitive training or other preventive interventions.
  • Promoting mental health in schools by offering support to children encountering serious stresses; modifying the school environment to promote prosocial behavior; developing students' skills at decision making, self-awareness, and conducting relationships; and targeting violence, aggressive behavior, and substance use.
  • Promoting mental health through health care and community programs by promoting and supporting prosocial behavior, teaching coping skills, and targeting modifiable life-style factors that can affect behavior and emotional health, such as sleep, diet, activity and physical fitness, sun-shine and light, and television viewing.

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