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Division of Mental Health Services

Office of Children & Youth

Serious Emotional Disturbance

Mental health problems can interfere with the way children think, feel and act. These problems are real and painful and can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse, violence, or even suicide. A young person’s current and future ability to be productive can be limited by mental health problems. In addition, these problems can be very costly to families, communities, and the health care system.

Mental Health Problems Can Be Severe

At times the severity of the mental health problem disrupts the child’s ability to function at home, in school, or in the community. This child can have a serious emotional disturbance. Usually the impaired emotional, behavioral, and mental functioning continues for a year or more. In some cases, the impairment lasts for a shorter period of time, but its severity is high or life threatening.

What are Serious Emotional Disturbances?

Serious emotional disturbances are mental health problems that severely disrupt a child’s or adolescent’s daily life and functioning at home, at school, or in the community. Serious emotional disturbances affect one in 20 youth at any given time. Tragically, an estimated two-thirds of the young people who need mental health services do not receive them. Without help, these problems can lead to school failure, alcohol and other drug abuse, family discord, violence, or even suicide.

Definition of Serious Emotional Disturbance

  • Child or adolescent birth to age 18
  • Currently or anytime in the past year has a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder to meet DSM-IV diagnostic criteria
  • Functional impairment substantially interferes with family, school, or community activities
  • Excludes DSM-IV V codes, substance abuse, and developmental disorders unless they occur with another diagnostic DSM-IV disorder

What Causes Serious Emotional Disturbance?

Biology, environment, or a mix of both can cause mental health problems in youth. Examples of biological causes are genetics, chemical imbalances in the body and damage to the central nervous system, such as head injury. There are many environmental factors that can put children at risk of developing mental health problems. Examples include exposure to violence, stress related chronic poverty, discrimination, and loss of important people.

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