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Mental Health Disorders Take a Toll on Kids’ Oral Health

Researchers confirm a correlation between mental health and oral health problems

The link between mental health and physical health—oral health included—is undeniable. Today, children are at increased risk for mental health problems. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health database, which contains health records for more than 60 million children, between 2016 and 2017, an estimated 14.7% of noninstitutionalized children in the United States, ages 3 to 17 experienced some form of mental health disorder.

In an effort to assess the impact of mental health problems on oral health in these kids, Texas researchers recently conducted a study.1 Through cross-sectional analyses, they calculated the effects of mental health disorders of varying severities on the oral health of 60,655,439 kids.

Severity Is a Factor

Considering the association between mental health disorders and factors such as sociodemographics, researchers sought to identify a variety of disorders including anxiety, depression, and behavioral or conduct problems. The severity of mental health disorders experienced by the study subjects ranged from mild to severe. 

Other data gathered reflected the incremental effects of the severity of mental health disorders on oral health problems, which were defined as “toothache, bleeding gums, and/or decayed teeth or cavities.” The study also attempted to determine the degree to which oral health problems could possibly be averted with intervention.

Results Reveal Impact

The likelihood of children developing oral health problems was 82% greater for those with mental health disorders compared to those without mental health issues. Drilling down further, study results indicate that, compared to children without mental health disorders, those with mild mental health disorders were 85% more likely to experience oral health problems. Children with moderate to severe mental health issues were 93% more likely to have oral health problems. 

The study also revealed that oral health difficulties in 15,206 children with mild mental health disorders and 255,851 children with moderate to severe mental health disorders could be averted if mental health disorders were improved by 75%. 

Risk Factors

The study uncovered a range of disparities. Kids without oral health complications were more likely to be non-Hispanic white, with private health insurance, and living at or above 400% of the federal poverty level. In comparison, children with oral health problems were typically younger (ages 6 to 8), poorer, living at or below 99% of the federal poverty level, and relying on government-sponsored insurance.

Another risk factor researchers observed linking oral health and mental health problems was the intake of medications such as mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotropic drugs. All of these medications can reduce salivary flow. Additional variables had to do with wealth, behavioral issues, sugar consumption, and whether a child lived with a parent or caregiver.

Oral health maintenance is something we learn as children, and today’s kids have a broad assortment of colorful, fun oral health gadgets to help them keep tooth decay at bay. But for children experiencing mental illness, daily regimens as pedestrian as toothbrushing can still pose a challenge, making kids more likely to fall victim to the ravages of caries.


  1. Yusuf Z, Dongarwar D, Yusuf RA, Udoetuk SC, Salihu HM. The burden of oral health problems in children with mental health disorders in the United States. Journal of Public Health Dentistry. Available by clicking here.
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