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Chronic Illness in Childhood Tied to Greater Risk of Mental Illness

Children with long-term health conditions, such as asthma, may be at greater risk of developing a mental health disorder in early adolescence compared to healthy children, according to a new study at Queen Mary University of London.

The findings, published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, show that kids with chronic health problems exhibit higher rates of mental illness at age 10, and these health issues continue to be linked to poor mental health at ages 13 and 15.

For the study, a research team reviewed a sample of approximately 7,000 children to investigate the occurrence of mental health disorders, including anxiety or depression, and chronic illness.

The measure of chronic illness was based on mothers rating their child’s health at ages 10 and 13. Since chronic conditions are defined as those that cannot be cured but can be controlled by medication and other therapies, and may have little disease activity, this measure included children presenting with minor health problems.

The study found that children with chronic health conditions were approximately twice as likely at 10 and at 13 to present with a mental health disorder than the control group (children reported by their mothers to be ‘healthy, no problems’). At age 15, children with chronic health problems were 60% more likely to present with such disorders.

“Although the link between chronic health conditions and mental health problems in childhood has been made before, this study provides the strongest evidence of it to date in the years of late childhood and early adolescence,” said study author Dr. Ann Marie Brady.

“The difference chronic conditions make to mental health are concerning, and the first impact can be seen even before adolescence, in late childhood.”

To investigate further, the team looked at a subset of the children with chronic illness: those who had been diagnosed with asthma. Their asthma symptoms were generally mild and well-controlled. Nevertheless, researchers found that asthmatic children showed a similar pattern, having a higher rate of mental illness at 10, 13 and 15 than healthy children.

The researchers also investigated what additional factors might account for the association between chronic conditions and mental illness. The sample was taken from the Children of the 90s study, which also contains information from parents and children about other issues including family functioning, friendships, children’s activity levels, bullying and health-related absenteeism from school. The team analyzed which of these might contribute to mental illness rates among kids with chronic illness.

The researchers found that bullying and health-related school absenteeism emerged as the most significant additional factors for children with mental health issues. Health-related school absenteeism was identified as the most consistent factor predicting mental health problems over time.

“Chronic illness disrupts children’s normal lives, and this can affect their development and wellbeing,” said Brady. “Even children with asthma, a generally treatable and less debilitating chronic condition, had higher rates of mental illness than the healthy children in our study.”

“If children with chronic conditions are more likely to miss school, or experience bullying, that can make the situation worse. Keeping an eye on school attendance and looking out for evidence of bullying amongst children with chronic illness may help to identify those who are most at risk.”

Source: Queen Mary University of London


Chronic Illness in Childhood Tied to Greater Risk of Mental Illness

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Chronic Illness in Childhood Tied to Greater Risk of Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 May 2020 (Originally: 6 May 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 May 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.