Serious Emotional Disturbances (SED) Fact Sheet

What are serious emotional disturbances and who is affected?

An estimated 1 in 20--or as many as 3 million young people--may have a "serious" emotional disturbance" (SED). This is a mental health term that refers to mental, emotional, and behavior problems that severely disrupt a person's ability to function socially, academically, and emotionally. It is a problem that is real, painful, and costly; a broad range of services is often necessary to meet the needs of young people with SED and their families.

How do Children with SED Behave?

Children with SED behave in a variety of ways, some more noticeable and severe than others. Just as there are a variety of types and severity of physical disorders, there are many different categories of emotional and behavioral disorders. The following are some examples of the types of problems affecting SED Youth:

  • Anxiety Disorders affect an estimated 9% of youths, They include phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The youngsters experience excessive fear or worry that interferes with tier daily lives. Click here for more information
  • Major depression shows up in about 6% of youths, and is marked by profound changes in emotion, motivation, physical well-being, and negative or self-destructive thoughts. Click here for more information
  • Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is marked by exaggerated mood swings, and often begins in the teenage years and recurs throughout the lives of these individuals. Click here for more information
  • Learning Disorders affect approximately 5% of youths, and include difficulties in spoken or written language, coordination, attention, or self control. Click here for more information
  • Conduct Disorders, which estimated to affect 4% to 10% of youths, causes children to act out their feelings or impulses towards others in destructive ways, such as lying, stealing, truancy, aggression, setting fires and committing vandalism.
  • Eating Disorders, more common in girls, include anorexia (self-starvation) and the binge and purge cycles of bulimia.
  • Autism, which appears before a child's third birthday, shows up in 7 to 14 of every 10,000 children. Children with autism have problems interacting and communicating with others. Often they methodically repeat the same behavior over long periods of time. (Autism is a separate classification in special education.)
  • Schizophrenia, marked by psychotic periods, hallucinations, loss of reality, and withdrawal, occurs in about 3 out of every 1,000 adolescents.

    Are a danger to the community?

    Without treatment, some youths with SED may become dangerous to themselves or others. When left untreated, over half (56%) drop out of school, and nearly three out of four (73%) who drop out are arrested within five years. But, with proper treatment, they can become healthy, productive members of society.

    What are the warning signs?

    Possible warning signs of a serious emotional disturbance in children can include:

    • constant feelings of sadness or hopelessness
    • sever anger, overreaction, or crying
    • feelings of guilt, worthlessness
    • anxious or worried more than other children
    • unable to get over a loss of death of loved one
    • unexplained fears
    • over-concern about appearance
    • feeling out of control

    Where can I find help?

    Family doctors, counselors, social workers, teachers, nurses, local hotlines or clergy members can point you toward help, which may include:

    • counseling
    • family or group therapy
    • crisis care
    • medications
    • tutoring
    • school, camp, or residential programs

    Information in this fact sheet provided by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Center for Mental Health Services and the U.S. Department of Educaton.


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