Generation at risk: America's youngest facing mental health crisis

(file photo courtesy Pixabay)
Kate Snow
Cynthia McFadden
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NEW YORK (NBC News) - Alex Crotty was just 11 when things started feeling wrong.

It wasn't just a matter of being unhappy. She always felt empty and miserable — never content or connected to other children. For years, she suffered alone, filled with shame. She switched schools, but that didn't help.

"I didn't feel unloved. I just felt numb to the world. Like, I was surrounded by great things, but just I couldn't be happy. And I didn't know why that was," Alex told NBC News.

Finally, at 14, she decided to break her silence. "I can't feel anything," Alex simply told her mother, Heather Olson of New York. "So she just gave me a hug, cradled me in her arms on the bed, and was like, 'Well can you feel me? Can you feel my love?'"

"A hug and kisses was the only thing that came to mind at the spur of the moment, but that was precisely what she needed to start the journey forward," Olson said.

Alex was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety. Now 16, she is in therapy and on medication. She's far from alone.

There is an acute health crisis happening among members of the youngest generation of Americans, with critical implications for the country's future.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 5 American children ages 3 through 17 — about 15 million — have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder in a given year.

Only 20 percent of these children are ever diagnosed and receive treatment; 80 percent — about 12 million — aren't receiving treatment.

Recent research indicates that serious depression is worsening in teens, especially girls, and the suicide rate among girls reached a 40-year high in 2015, according to a CDC report released in August.

"Child and adolescent mental health disorders are the most common illnesses that children will experience under the age of 18. It's pretty amazing, because the number's so large that I think it's hard to wrap our heads around it," said Dr. Harold Koplewicz, founding president of The Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit children's mental health advocacy group.

Over the next few months, NBC Nightly News will examine the state of American children's mental health, including reports on what has led to this increase — especially in anxiety and depression — treatment obstacles, promising research and innovative programs to help children.

Get more from NBC News on this story, including why adolescents are so vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

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