The percentage of youth suffering from a mental disorder is even greater than the most frequent major physical conditions in adolescence, including diabetes or asthma.
About 20 percent of youth in the U.S. are affected by at least one type of mental disorder during their lifetime to an extent that they have difficulty functioning, according to a new National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) survey.
The data supports previous findings from adult surveys that mental disorders usually begin at a young age.
Several regional surveys in the United States have shown that about one in four to five children experience a mental disorder sometime in their life.
Up until now, however, no nationally representative surveys have been carried out to see if these rates of occurrence hold true across the nation.
Kathleen Merikangas, Ph.D., of NIMH and her team observed data from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement, a nationally representative, face-to-face survey of more than 10,000 teens ages 13 to 18.
To follow up on the teens’ responses, the researchers also collected data through mailed-in questionnaires completed by one parent or guardian of each teen participant.
The findings show that nearly half of the participants met diagnostic criteria for at least one disorder over a lifetime, and about 20 percent reported that they suffered from a mental disorder with symptoms severe enough to impact their daily lives.
Specifically, the following results were reported: 11 percent were being severely impaired by a mood disorder (e.g., depression or bipolar disorder); 10 percent were being severely impaired by a behavior disorder, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or conduct disorder; eight percent were being severely impaired by at least one type of anxiety disorder.
Furthermore, about 40 percent of respondents suffering from a mental disorder also met criteria for having at least one additional disorder. Those with a mood disorder were more likely than others to report having a co-existing disorder.
Solidifying the idea that mental disorders begin early in life, the research team also found that symptoms of anxiety disorders began to emerge by about age 6, behavior disorders by age 11, mood disorders by age 13, and substance use disorders by age 15.
The team also observed strong links between parental traits and their child’s disorders. For example, children of parents with less education were at an increased risk for having any kind of mental disorder.
Those with divorced parents were also at higher risk for any disorder, especially anxiety, behavior and substance use disorders, than teens with married or cohabiting parents.
The results of the study demonstrate the importance of developing prevention strategies and promoting early intervention for at-risk children and adolescents.
More research is needed to better understand the risk factors for mental disorders in young people, as well as how to predict which disorders may continue into adulthood. In addition, the researchers acknowledge the need for more prospective research to differentiate the complex web that includes biological, socioeconomic and genetic factors that may contribute to the development of mental disorders in youth.
The survey is published in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.