Mental health problems in teens go untreated for decades

Researchers in the U.S. say many mental disorders afflicting millions of Americans are often evident in adolescence but usually go untreated for years.

According to Ronald Kessler, mental illness is the most prevalent chronic condition in youth. Kessler is the author of two Harvard Medical School studies which examined the prevalence of mental problems.

He says that fewer than one in three people get adequate treatment and a better job needs to be done in helping people access treatment.

In their study Kessler and other experts found that many people wait years and sometimes even decades, to seek treatment for their depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, and many of their symptoms may have emerged as early as age 11.

They say a number of factors may be at play, including a lack of early screening and social or cultural pressures.

His studies were based on data from more than 9,000 adults collected in 2001 by University of Michigan researchers.

In another report Harvard researcher Philip Wang found that only two out of five people whose illness qualifies as a mental disorder, got help within the previous 12 months, and the unmet need for treatment was greatest in traditionally under-served groups, including elderly persons, racial-ethnic minorities, those with low incomes, those without insurance, and residents of rural areas.

Kessler says a lack of early treatment for children and teenagers can lead to debilitating problems such as drug abuse and obsessive compulsive disorders.

He concluded that in general half of all Americans report at least one symptom of mental disorder at some point in their lifetimes, and research shows that United States has the highest propensity for mental illnesses among industrialized nations.

A previous study by the World Mental Health Survey Consortium found Americans were three times more likely to experience anxiety than Italians, and twice as prone to substance abuse as Germans.

But apparently, for reasons that are not clear, there has been a decline in the proportion of Americans afflicted with mental illness for the first time in 50 years.

A commission last year appointed by President George W. Bush recommended early mental disorder screening for children and teenagers at public schools, and thousands of schools across the country are already working on early detection methods to fight teen suicide.

Thomas Insel, a member of the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health and director of the National Institute for Mental Health says it is difficult to predict who is going to develop severe mental problems and who is not.

Douglas Jacobs, the executive director of Screening for Mental Health, a nonprofit company based in Massachusetts, says educating young people about depression is very important.

But childhood screening raises major concerns among some who argue it can lead to labeling and excessive medication.

Ronald Kessler's studies are published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

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