What is CAMH?

For this playbook, CAMH is defined on a continuum and as a capacity rather than a dichotomy. Thus, all children and adolescents have mental health—and their mental health can be built, nurtured, promoted, and protected.

  • Being mentally healthy during childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones, acquiring healthy social skills, and learning how to cope when there are problems. 
  • Mentally healthy children and adolescents have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and in their communities.
  • The mental health of children and adolescents can vary over time, in different conditions, and at different ages.

In contrast with the above definition of mental health, mental disorders among children are described as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, causing distress and problems getting through the day.1 Many children occasionally experience fears and worries or display disruptive behaviors. If symptoms are serious and persistent and interfere with school, home, or play activities, the child may be diagnosed with a mental disorder. Children who don’t have a mental disorder might differ in how well they are doing, and children who have the same diagnosed mental disorder might also differ from one another. For example, their developmental and coping strengths and weaknesses—along with quality of life—may vary. Recognizing mental health as a continuum and identifying specific mental disorders are both ways to understand how well children are doing.

What is the role of public health in CAMH? 

Public health includes mental health. Thus, public health has a role to play in assessing and improving CAMH. Promoting CAMH includes making sure children and adolescents meet developmental milestones, understanding what to do when there is a concern, supporting positive parenting strategies, and improving access to care. Public health can play a role in all these activities. For example, CDC already works with partner agencies to better understand mental health and mental disorders and the impact they have on children and adolescents. Health departments at all levels can play an important role by building their own capacity to assess and improve CAMH through population-level surveillance and working with partners to implement data-informed interventions and policies.

What is the value of public health measurement of CAMH?

Timely and reliable data are integral to the assessment and improvement of CAMH. Health departments have a high degree of expertise in the collection and use of data, and that expertise can be readily applied to collecting and using data to improve CAMH. However, neither “mental disorders” nor “mental health” have a single case definition, which makes CAMH surveillance challenging. Monitoring the association between school indicators (e.g., school attendance, school disciplinary actions, school readiness) and outcomes related to mental health and well-being can serve as a starting point, and additional indicators can be included over time.