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Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1996 Dec;53(12):1137-43.

The Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth. Functional impairment and serious emotional disturbance.

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  • 1Developmental Epidemiology Program, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA.



Federal regulations require states to estimate the prevalence and incidence of serious emotional disturbance (SED) in children, defined as a DSM-III-R diagnosis in the presence of impaired functioning in 1 or more areas. We reviewed the published data on SED and examined rates and correlates of SED in an ongoing epidemiologic study of children.


Rates of DSM-III-R disorders, functional impairment, and their co-occurrence (SED) were examined in a representative population sample of 9-, 11-, and 13-year-olds from a predominantly rural area of North Carolina. Three measures of functional impairment were used, and their interrelationship and impact on rates of SED were examined.


Serious emotional disturbance was identified in 4% to 8% of the study population, depending on the measure of impairment; the rate of DSM-III-R disorder ignoring impairment was 20.3%. One quarter of children identified as having SED on any measure were identified by all 3, and one half by 2 or more. Behavioral disorders, emotional disorders, and comorbidity were associated with a significant increase in the likelihood of SED; enuresis and tic disorders in the absence of comorbidity were not. Diagnosis and impairment made independent contributions to the increase in service use seen in children with SED. Poverty greatly increased the likelihood of SED.


Specific areas of functional impairment should be examined when SED is assessed and treatment is planned. Plans to target mental health care resources to children with SED need to be accompanied by efforts to ensure access to those resources.

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