A large study of Canadian youth discovers symptoms of mental illness in children and adolescents do not appear to be increasing.
The finding, as published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal), suggests a different mental health trajectory compared to some media reports.
“Popular media tends to perpetuate the idea that the prevalence of mental disorders is increasing,” writes Ian Colman, Ph.D., Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Epidemiology and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “However, research supporting this position has been inconsistent.”
Researchers looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth over a 10-year period. The survey involves a group of children and adolescents from across the provinces queried every two years.
Their study included 11,725 children aged 10–11 years (1994/95–2004/05); 10,574 aged 12–13 years (1996/97–2006/07); and 9,835 aged 14–15 years (1998/99–2008/09).
Participants were asked by confidential questionnaire to describe their feelings and behaviors and the frequency at which they experienced them in the previous week.
Researchers discovered the following patterns:
- Depression and anxiety: mean symptom scores did not change significantly in children aged 10–11 years and 12–13 years;
- There was a small but statistically significant decline in depression and anxiety in adolescents aged 14–15;
- Physical aggression and indirect aggression such as antisocial or manipulative behavior declined in all three age groups;
- Suicidal behaviour: a decline in the percentage of youth aged 12–13 and 14–15 years who reported or attempted suicide;
- Hyperactivity increased significantly in children aged 10–11 and 12–13 years.
Public perceptions of the prevalence of mental illness tend to be fueled by the media. Relatively recent efforts to destigmatize mental illness, which can lead to increased recognition of symptoms and treatment-seeking behavior, may be a reason mental illness is erroneously believed to be increasing, say the authors.
Survey findings also suggest that suicidal behavior is on the decline, although the picture remains murky.
“Encouragingly, results from this study suggest that suicidal ideation and suicide attempts may be declining,” write the authors.
“Though there is no conclusive evidence for the efficacy of various efforts in preventing suicide, some strategies, including physician education and certain school-based strategies, show promise in reducing suicidal behaviors.”
Researchers believe continued efforts in suicide prevention, ongoing evaluations regarding the efficacy of prevention programs, and enhanced interventions targeting mental illness in teens are necessary to improve the mental health of adolescents.