Education

Higher Rate of Mental Disorders Found Among Teenagers

By Ellen Flax — June 13, 1990 3 min read
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The most extensive study to date of the mental health of teenagers has found that many more adolescents than previously suspected are subject to mental disorders.

Moreover, the study concludes, these conditions--including bulimia and obsessive-compulsive disorder--often go undiagnosed and untreated in teenagers.

The study, which appeared in the May issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, was based on data collected by Columbia University and National Institute of Mental Health researchers from nearly 5,600 students attending public and private high schools in an unidentified county in New Jersey.

They found that at some point in their lives, 0.2 percent of the students had anorexia nervosa, which is marked by rapid weight loss, and 2.5 percent had bulimia, marked by binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting.

In addition, the study showed, 0.6 percent of the students at some point had panic disorder; 1.9 percent had obsessive-compulsive disorder; 4 percent had major depression; 4.9 percent had dysthymic depression, a less severe but more chronic disorder; and 3.7 percent had generalized anxiety disorder.

Girls were more likely than boys to suffer from depression and to have eating disorders, the researchers found.

“It is clear that in this large school-based population, eating disorders and emotional disorders are underrecognized and undertreated,” the report states.

The researchers noted that the8true rate of these disorders among adolescents is probably higher, since dropouts and institutionalized teenagers were not included in the study.

They also found that 60 percent of the teenagers identified in the study as having an emotional disorder had never received any treatment or therapy.

An exception was teenagers with anorexia nervosa, 80 percent of whom had sought treatment. Unlike other disorders, the authors said, anorexia has visible symptoms that may prompt recognition and intervention.

Because adolescent patients do not typically “outgrow” mental and emotional disorders, the researchers said, early identification of these problems will prevent years of needless suffering.

A second study, published in the June issue of the same journal, also emphasizes the need for the early identification of teenagers with mental-health problems.

Early Onset of Phobias

According to that study, phobias, major depression, and alcohol and other drug dependency affect young men and women earlier in their lives than previously believed.

The study, which was led by a team of researchers from nimh, found that the median age for the onset of phobias was 14 for males and 13 for females.

But the peak time for the onset of phobias, including agoraphobia (an abnormal fear of open spaces) and social phobias, was between the ages of 5 and 9 for both boys and girls, the study said.

It found that the peak time for depression to begin in females was between the ages of 15 and 19. For males, the peak time was between 25 and 29.

As recently as 1980, the researchers said, the mental-health community believed that the onset of major depression was fairly evenly distributed throughout adult life.

The study, which was based on a survey of 2,046 men and women in five communities, found that both men and women were at the highest risk of beginning alcohol or drug dependency between the ages of 15 and 19. Men were more likely than women to be substance abusers, the researchers said.

In contrast, women were more likely than men to be depressed and to suffer from aniexty disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive behavior and panic disorders. The researchers acknowledged, however, that their findings could be biased because nearly three-quarters of those included in the study were women.

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 1990 edition of Education Week as Higher Rate of Mental Disorders Found Among Teenagers

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