Mental Illness Leading Cause of Disability in Youth

June 6, 2011

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By Anne Harding

MONDAY, June 6, 2011 (Health.com) — Mental health problems such as depression account for nearly half of all disability among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to a new study from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Researchers looked at data from 191 countries and estimated the number of years of good health lost to disability resulting from disease and injury (known as disability-adjusted life years). Among adolescents and young adults, 45% of disability was related to depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders, including alcohol abuse.

John S. Santelli, MD, a professor of population and family health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, in New York City, says that, fortunately, mental health issues at the root of a young person’s disability generally respond to prevention, early detection, and treatment.

“There’s much better behavioral treatments, there’s much better pharmacological treatments as well,” says Dr. Santelli, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, which was published in the journal The Lancet. “We know what to do. We just need to do it.”

The study was the first ever to look at the international burden of disability in young people. Worldwide, the researchers estimated, disability claimed about 236 million healthy years from this group, which includes both estimated and actual years of life lost to illness and premature death.

After mental disorders, accidental injuries were the second largest cause of disability, accounting for 12%, followed by communicable diseases (including HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis) at 10%.

The top risk factors for disability were drug and alcohol use, unsafe sex, failure to use birth control, and iron deficiency, a common sign of malnutrition.

“Youth is considered to be a time of good health,” says one of the study’s authors, Fiona M. Gore, a WHO researcher in Geneva, Switzerland. However, she says, “important health factors and risk factors for disease in later life emerge in these years “

The study revealed some regional and socioeconomic differences. Compared to the world as a whole, for instance, mental disorders account for a greater proportion of disability in the U.S., in Europe, and in nations with high per-capita income. On the other hand, disability due to injuries and communicable diseases was lower in those countries than worldwide.

“There is a need to focus on prevention strategies and on health promotion of noncommunicable and nonfatal causes of disease in young people,” Gore says.

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