June 09, 2005

Mental illness likely appears in childhood

A new survey of nearly 10,000 adult Americans uncovered some important trends among those who live with a mental illness. Conducted by the Harvard University and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, the study is among the most comprehensive of its kind to date. The large sample size is especially important for researchers attempting to determine what are true trends among the general populace.

One finding of the study is about 1 in 4 adults in this population displayed symptoms of at least one mental illness (the researchers concentrated on four broad categories: anxiety disorders, mood disorders, substance abuse, and impulse-control disorders). The statistic was determined by asking each participant a series of questions designed to determine whether they had experienced the symptoms of these mental illnesses, as currently defined by the DMS-IV. Of the percentage who seemed to fit the criteria, about half showed the first symptoms before age 14, and three-quarters before age 24.

The implications of these percentages are that mental illness symptoms can and do appear in childhood, but for whatever reason they are not followed up on and treated appropriately. Most of the participants in the study said they waited an average of 10 years before first seeking treatment for their symptoms.

"If untreated, mild problems in young people can escalate and lead to damage that can't be undone," says Ronald Kessler, a professor of health-care policy at Harvard Medical School in Boston and an overseer of the massive survey.

Other important findings of the survey: most people who struggled with mental illness symptoms did not seek treatment because of a lack of knowledge of warning signs, the lingering stigma of mental illness, or a lack of adequate treatment facilities and professionals.

Editorial note: Statistics that give the percentage of people suffering from mental illness, especially when defined in broad categories such as in the studies above, should be interpreted cautiously. Mental health professionals still disagree on how mental illnesses are labeled and defined (i.e. what, how long, and how severe symptoms should be before someone is given a certain diagnosis), and even the DSM-IV criteria is open to interpretation. The reported numbers of people with or without a certain mental illness may be inaccurate. Furthermore, depending on how a study is designed, diagnostic questions may be leading or so general to some people that they are placed in a category that might not be appropriate.

Moreover, many symptoms of mental illness are normal spectrum behaviors as well. What makes a symptom a symptom is the type of situation it appears in (one that would not normally precipitate that response), the degree of severity (a response that is to an extreme degree), and the length of time that it is present (for example, teenagers have mood swings as a normal part of growing up, but a teenager that has a long history of very extreme, rapid, and/or debilitating mood swings may need to be evaluated for bipolar disorder).

Source: Battle with mental illness often begins in childhood. Houston Chronicle, June 8 2005 (http://www.chron.com/)

Resources to help identify and deal with mental illness in childhood:

Questions and answers about childhood-onset schizophrenia: http://www.schizophrenia.com/family/FAQchild.htm

Early detection and treatment articles: http://www.schizophrenia.com/diag.html#early

Youth and Mental Illness - early intervention (Canadian organization website): http://www.cmha.ca/english/intrvent/index.html


I have been diagnosed as bipolar for 9 years, I'm 44. But latley I have benn hereing voices, seein things,and really bad nightmares, and can't sleep. I really don't know what is going o but I'm really scared. Ive been to the Dr. I have been on paxil for a long time. He said it sounds like my illness is getting worse so he put me on litoium.

could you please tell me what I should do? thanks Kelly

Posted by: Kelly at June 21, 2005 02:51 AM

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