Mental Health Issues In Foster Care
Mental health problems are common among children in foster care, and can have a significant impact on their development, including:
- Academic performance. Research has shown that children with emotional and behavioral problems may experience lower academic achievement than other students (Wong et al., 2011). This effect may be more pronounced for younger children than older ones (Auerbach & Hinshaw, 2006).
- Behavioral issues. Children who have experienced abuse or neglect are more likely to exhibit aggression, disruptive behavior at home or school, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or conduct disorders (Cohen & Cohen Eliasen, 2009; Thompson et al., 2012). This effect is most pronounced among younger children—those under 5 years old—and this population also experiences higher rates of depression compared to older age groups who were removed from their homes due to neglect rather than maltreatment (Thompson et al., 2012).
Why we should care
- There are many reasons why we should care about mental health problems in foster care. First, the system is broken. The foster care system has been failing these children for decades and it is time for us to take action.
- Children in the system have a higher likelihood of developing mental health issues than their peers. In fact, research suggests that 50% of youth in care will experience one or more psychiatric disorders during their childhoods, compared with roughly 10% of children raised by their families.
- Foster children are some of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals—they deserve our help just like everyone else!
Rates of mental illness in the foster care system
Studies have shown that most children entering foster care have experienced abuse and neglect. This is in no small part because many of these children come from environments where they aren’t receiving the love, nurturing and support they need to thrive.
It’s also important to note that studies show a direct correlation between mental illness and exposure to abuse or neglect. Children who have been abused or neglected are more likely to develop psychological problems as adults than their peers with similar backgrounds who were not exposed to trauma at such an early age.
Research has shown that children in foster care tend to be more vulnerable than their peers when it comes to developing mental health issues later on in life. For example:
- A study published by The Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry looked at data from over 1 million youths who were born between 1990 and 1991 across all 50 states; these researchers found rates of diagnosed anxiety disorders among teens living with one or two parents were significantly lower than among teens living with relatives other than their parents (e.g., grandparents). Teens living without either parent had even higher rates of anxiety disorders—this group had nearly three times higher odds than those with both parents attached.
- Another study published by the same journal found that adolescents placed into out-of-home care are almost twice as likely as those who remained under primary maternal custody after divorce/separation both before placement (OR=1·76) and after placement (OR=2·02), even though mothers with custody generally do better economically than mothers without custody.
Types of mental illness
- Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
- Bipolar Disorder
- Depression, including major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder (manic depression)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Delays in diagnosis and treatment
One of the most common issues when it comes to mental health in foster care is that many children are not diagnosed and/or treated as soon as they should be. This delay can have serious consequences for the child, including:
- an inability to learn at school or with their peers;
- a lack of motivation and drive; and
- increased risk for self-harm or suicide.
Lack of access to mental health services
You probably know that access to health services is important for the prevention and treatment of mental illness. But do you know how much less likely children in foster care are to receive those services?
On average, foster children have significantly lower access to mental health services than their peers who aren’t in care. This means they’re less likely to receive treatment for depression, anxiety and other issues that can arise when dealing with the stressors of family separation or placement in a new environment. It also means they may not be able to get help with other conditions that could be exacerbated by trauma (e.g., PTSD).
How this impacts the child’s future
- The emotional stress of being in foster care can have a lasting impact on a child’s health and well-being.
- Stress can affect their social development and school performance, putting them at risk for future employment or interpersonal relationships.
What we can do moving forward
- Raise awareness and increase funding.
- Improve access to mental health services.
- Improve support for foster parents and carers.
- Educate foster parents and carers on how to best support their children with mental health issues, as well as how to recognize when it’s time to seek professional help for the child.
- Educate foster children about their own mental health, so that they know what symptoms to look out for in themselves or others, how to get help if needed (and when), and what resources are available in their area if they need them (e.g., a list of therapists who specialize in treating trauma).
- Change the system so that it is easier for foster children with mental health issues to get help without having to go through multiple hoops first—for example, by making sure that every shelter has someone on staff whose job it is specifically just providing therapy sessions while people wait around until they’re placed somewhere else.”