By: Kathryn Davis & Sam Ernst


During any given year, an estimated 13-20% of US children experience some type of mental disorder –– and these numbers have been on the rise.  Although media attention often focuses on mental health problems in girls, recent data in the US suggests that school-aged boys are more likely than their female peers to have any type of mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.

Which mental disorders affect boys most?

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD) is the most common mental health problem in childhood, affecting about 6.8% of US children.  Boys have significantly higher rates of ADHD than girls.  Similarly, behavioral or conduct problems, which affect 3.5% of US children, are more than twice as common in boys (6.2% of boys) than girls (3% of girls).  Although less common, developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Tourette syndrome are also both predominant among boys.


What about depression and anxiety?

Although there is a dramatic depression gender-gap in adolescence and adulthood, with teenage and adult women showing much higher rates of depression than their male peers, this gap isn’t apparent at younger ages.  In fact, in childhood rates of depression are similar between genders.  And anxiety, the second most common mental health problem in children, is more common in boys.


What are the major risk factors for poor mental health among boys?


Bullying can have serious negative effects on mental health.  Although school-aged boys and girls are equally likely to be bullied through name-calling or exclusion, boys are significantly more likely to be physically bullied or threatened physically.  One study found that adolescents who reported having been bullied in the most recent school term were 42% more likely to show depressive symptoms.  This link between being bullied and depression was particularly strong for boys.

Another prospective study found that boys who were bullied between the ages of 10-12 were significantly more likely to later make a suicide attempt in adolescence or adulthood.


Exposure to Violence

More broadly, exposure to violence––which can include bullying, family violence (such as child maltreatment and witnessing intimate partner abuse), or community violence (such as being physically assaulted, witnessing gang violence)––has been linked to poor mental health outcomes.

Although it’s not clear that exposure to violence has a stronger negative effect on boys than on girls, boys have been found to have higher rates of exposure to certain types of violence, including witnessing someone being injured or killed.  In nationally and regionally representative studies, boys also have higher rates of personally experiencing certain types of violent victimization, such as physical assault.  Boys’ mental health may then be particularly impacted by their disproportionate exposure to violence.


How do these risk factors operate across development?

The timing of exposure to risk factors may affect how strongly these experiences impact boys and their mental health and academic outcomes.

In one recent study, our lab found that mental health symptoms in young boys were most strongly explained by how recently exposure to physical or sexual abuse had occurred and the total number of time periods of exposure. 

In another longitudinal study of American middle school students surveyed repeatedly over the course of a school year, the duration of exposure to bullying was found to be particularly important for predicting depressive symptoms in boys, in comparison to girls.  Interestingly, however, boys also showed better recovery over time from bullying-induced anxiety and depression symptoms than girls.


What can we do to support boys?

Now that we know that boys share more of the risk for mental health problems, what can we do to support them?

Provide a nurturing presence

Exposure to a nurturing caregiver is one protective factor known to help shield children from the negative effects of violence and other experiences.  These caregivers aren’t limited to parents.  Educational professionals, and other people who interact with youth can help promote health and protect young people from harm by providing safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments.


Talk about it

Men and boys with mental health problems often aren’t diagnosed, in part because they may be reluctant to discuss symptoms they’re experiencing.  The first step to destigmatizing mental illness for everyone is to acknowledge it, and to talk openly about its warning signs.


Get educated

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