National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Mental Illness is a Top Concern for Youth Around the World

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

A new study released by the World Health Organization (WHO) has revealed that mental illness is the leading cause of disability among children, teens and young adults worldwide. Researchers found that neuropsychiatric disorders, which include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse and others, accounted for 45 percent of the disease burden in youth aged 10-24. The following two highest categories for disease burden were unintentional injuries, including road traffic accidents, 12 percent, and infectious and parasitic diseases, 10 percent.

This large disparity between mental health and the subsequent categories show just how much of an impact mental illness has on the world at large.

Researchers used data from the 2004 Global Burden of Disease for the study. To determine the percentage of disease burden, researchers employed what they called DALYs, cause-specific disability-adjusted life-years. This measure examines estimates of both years of life lost due to premature deaths and years lost due to the specific disability, such as depression.

Although mental illness is more commonly found in developed nations, this does not mean mental illness is more prevalent in these countries. The researchers noted that neuropsychiatric disorders are often poorly measured in developing nations, making it difficult to obtain a realistic estimate for the true extent of the problem. This is a consequence of many low-income and middle-income countries placing communicable diseases as the top research priority.

This could mean that rates of mental health related issues could potentially account for more than the 45 percent stated if more precise measures were implemented for determining the prevalence of mental illness. Despite communicable diseases viewed as the number one priority and although mental health has been largely overlooked in public health, mental illness was still the leading cause of disability in young people in each region studied.

While the authors of the report call on public health officials to enact prevention strategies that target teens and young adults, researcher Colin Mathers, Ph.D., a scientist at WHO, told WebMD that he believes the findings could also be a wake-up call for youth.

"The message for young people is mental health problems arise in this period of life. Typically, if people are going to get such problems as schizophrenia, they tend to arise during this period."

Ken Duckworth, M.D., agrees. “Increasingly, we are starting to realize the onset of about one-half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.”

Alerting teens to their increased susceptibility to mental illness can allow them to be more attentive to noticing changes in behavior and mood in both themselves and their friends. Providing education and support for teens going through trying times is one of the most important actions a family member, friend or community member can take. Connecting with other teens who are experiencing similar situations is another option that many teens have found beneficial is coping with their illness. But regardless of which method is taken, action should be taken at the first sign of trouble.