Mental Illness Starts in Childhood

Dr. Greene’s take on childhood mental illness…

For most people who develop mental illnesses, the problem usually starts in childhood or adolescence, according to a study published in the June 6, 2005 Archives of General Psychiatry. Researchers from Harvard Medical School conducted face-to-face surveys of almost 10,000 adults to learn about how common psychological problems are in the general population, and at what ages they begin.

The most common specific problem in adults was major depression, followed by alcohol abuse, specific phobias, and social phobias. The most common broad class of disorders was anxiety disorders, followed by impulse-control disorders, mood disorders, and substance abuse disorders.

Across the board, half of all disorders in adults had started by age 14! This is astounding. The average age for the start of anxiety disorders and impulse-control disorders was even younger, at age 11. The starting ages were concentrated in a surprisingly narrow range for most of the disorders studied. For instance, half of all impulse-control disorders started between age 7 and 15.

Most of the illnesses were minor at the outset. Without help, mild or low-level problems can escalate later in life to severe or chronic depression, phobias, or anxieties. This calls for a change in our priorities and awareness. Most of our mental health budget is spent on adults. This striking study suggests that our efforts toward prevention, early detection, and early treatment should be focused on our youth.

Published on: June 07, 2005
About the Author
Photo of Dr. Alan Greene
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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