Survey Finds More Evidence That Mental Disorders Often Begin in Youth

June 21, 2012

About 8 percent of U.S. teens meet current criteria for having a serious emotional disturbance, according to two NIMH-funded studies published in the April 2012 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

A September 2010 study using data from the NIMH-funded National Comorbidity Survey-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A) found that about 20 percent of youth are affected by a mental disorder sometime in their lifetime. The NCS-A is a nationally representative, face-to-face survey of more than 10,000 teens ages 13 to 18. Parents or caregivers were also asked to complete a corroborating questionnaire after teens were interviewed. The NCS-A used criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) to assess for a wide range of mental disorders including mood and anxiety disorders, behavior disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, and substance use disorders.

In this most recent analysis, Kathleen Merikangas, Ph.D., of NIMH, Ron Kessler, Ph.D., of Harvard University, and colleagues examined the prevalence of mental disorders, as well as the severity of the disorders, within a 12-month period to estimate the rate of serious emotional disturbances (SED) in youth. SED was defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) as a “mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder … that resulted in functional impairment which substantially interferes with or limits the child’s role or functioning in family, school, or community activities.”

Results of the Study
The researchers found that about 8 percent of all respondents had SED. Those with behavior disorders were most likely to be considered to have a severe disorder. Those with three or more coexisting disorders were also more likely to be severely affected. Similar to adults, anxiety disorders were the most common conditions in adolescents. Echoing many other studies, girls were more likely to have a mood or anxiety disorder or eating disorder, while boys were more likely to have a behavior disorder like ADHD or substance use disorder. Contrary to regional studies, this report showed a lower rate of depression among Hispanics compared to whites.

The findings in this study reflect the widely held belief that most psychiatric disorders first manifest in childhood or adolescence and tend to persist or recur throughout a person’s life. The researchers conclude that the high prevalence rate of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents underscores the need for more research focused on changing the trajectory of mental disorders in youth.

What’s Next
More research is needed to better understand the differences in prevalence rates among cultural and ethnic groups in different regions of the country.

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