Health and wellness care providers had tables of information available at the Community Forum on Child/Adolescent Mental Health and Wellness held March 27 at Bluffton High School. Catherine Trotter

An ongoing study of brain development and child health has revealed that one in five children had some type of mental health diagnosis at baseline, with anxiety being the most common, according to Medical University of South Carolina neuroscientist Anna Kirkland.

Kirkland spoke to a crowd of parents, students, teachers and leaders at the free Community Forum on Child/Adolescent Mental Health and Wellness held March 27 at Bluffton High School. 

Beaufort County School District superintendent Frank Rodriguez, Board of Education chairperson Dr. Christina Gwozdz, Bluffton mayor Lisa Sulka and Hilton Head Island mayor Alan Perry were all in attendance. 

The event was organized by the Lowcountry Alliance for Healthy Youth (LCAHY) in response to the United States surgeon general’s plea for a community-wide approach to protecting mental health in young people, said Dr. Loretta Novince, psychologist and consultant for the group. 

“According to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, half of all lifetime cases of mental and substance use disorders begin by age 14, and three-quarters by age 24,” Novince wrote in an email to The Bluffton Sun. 

Students who participate in Teens for Healthy Youth, an initiative of LCAHY, asked members of the community to get involved in promoting positive teen mental health and wellness. 

MUSC clinical psychologist Alexis Garcia spoke about the signs and symptoms of adolescent depression, anxiety and behavior disorders. She discussed the risk factors for mental health problems in young people and shared some of the strategies for assessing and supporting their mental health and wellness. Some of those strategies include effective communication, parental monitoring and finding access to resources.

Garcia noted that three out of four children with depression also have anxiety and one out of five children with behavior problems also have depression. She also shared the somber fact that the top three causes of mortality in people ages 15 to 24 are accidents, suicide and homicide.

Kirkland spoke about the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study that is being conducted at 21 sites across the U.S., including at MUSC in Charleston. 

In a phone interview after the forum, Kirkland said the study involves almost 12,000 children who are now between the ages of 12 and 13. It began when the participants were ages 9 and 10, and will span about 10 years.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study tracks the biological and behavioral development of participants from adolescence into young adulthood using brain imaging, biological samples, cognitive tests, interviews, questionnaires and the use of Fitbits, Kirkland said. 

“The end goal is to translate all of this data into either prevention or intervention treatment,” Kirkland said.  

So far, Kirkland said researchers have gathered some important information, including the following:

• At the first visit, 33.7% of participants met the criteria for an anxiety disorder, 18.8% met the criteria for ADHD, and 14% met the criteria for oppositional defiant disorder.

• At the first visit, 9.7% of participants were taking some kind of psychiatric medication.

• At the first visit, 15.4% of participants were receiving some kind of treatment for mental health problems.

• Mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and impulsive behavior, were negatively correlated with sleep duration – so higher levels of mental health problems were connected to shorter sleep time. 

• Mental health problems in the parents were also correlated with short sleep duration in their children. Depression symptoms had the strongest relationship with sleep problems.

• Screen time has increased from four hours daily in 9- to 10-year-olds to more than seven hours daily in 12- to 13-year-olds.

• Substance use experimentation, such as having a sip of alcohol in a non-religious setting or taking a puff of either cannabis or nicotine, increased from 23.1% at ages 9 and 10 to 39.7% at ages 12 and 13.

• Substance use initiation, such as drinking a standard alcoholic beverage or trying more than just a puff of cannabis or nicotine, increased from 1.1% at ages 9 and 10 to 7.4% at ages 12 and 13. 

“One thing that I read one time was that kids aren’t adults with just fewer miles on them,” Kirkland said. “They are at a unique point in their lives, and they are doing the best they can with what they have. Our job as parents, educators, guardians, mentors, what have you, is to help them grow and develop, and to do that as safely as possible.” 

For more information on the LowCountry Alliance for Healthy Youth and to find mental health resources, visit For more information on the ABCD study, visit 

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.