June 14, 2024

More than 1 in 10 individuals between 5 and 24 years of age live with at least one diagnosable mental disorder, suggests a new report that shines a light on the global mental health crisis among young people.

The burden is high in this population, with around one fifth of all disease-related disability attributable to mental disorders. The data, drawn from the 2019 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, examines mental health in the 293 million people worldwide in this age group.

“This concentration of disability burden at an early age raises concern about the potential lifetime impact of these conditions,” wrote the authors, led by Christian Kieling, MD, PhD, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil.

The study was published online on January 31, 2024, in JAMA Psychiatry.

State of Emergency

Soaring rates of mental health disorders among young people, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, have led the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics to declare a state of emergency, as reported by Medscape Medical News

Using the GBD study, Kieling and colleagues estimated the global prevalence and years lived with disability associated with mental disorders and substance use disorders in people aged 5-24 years. 

In 2019, individuals in this age range had at least one mental disorder and 31 million had a substance use disorder — an average prevalence of 11.6% and 1.2%, respectively. 

The prevalence of mental disorders doubled from the age range of 5-9 years (6.8%) to 20-24 years (13.6%). 

Among mental disorders analyzed, anxiety disorders were most common in the overall population (84 million; 3.35%) and schizophrenia the least common (2 million; 0.08%). 

Notably, the researchers said, there was a steep increase in mood disorders, particularly anxiety and substance use disorders, across early to late adolescence and from late adolescence to young adulthood.

Mental disorders and substance use disorders were the leading cause of nonfatal disability in children and youths in 2019, accounting for 31 million and 4.3 million years lived with disability (YLDs), respectively. That represents roughly 20% and 3% of YLDs, respectively, from all causes. 

Youth Mental Health Is Not a Monolith

“That youth mental health is in such dire straits is particularly striking given that many measures of global physical health in young people are improving,” wrote the authors of an accompanying editorial. 

In their editorial, Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, MD, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, and co-authors noted that these and other age- and gender-related findings “represent a meaningful contribution to the literature.” 

The granular data underscore that youth mental health is “not a monolith” but rather involves considerable variation in prevalence and morbidity across both age and gender, they wrote. 

Therefore, mental health screening, promotion, and prevention efforts may benefit from an age-based approach that targets specific disorders during “high prevalence developmental intervals, with keen attention also paid to gender,” they suggested. 

On the basis of the findings in this analysis, healthcare and education resource allocation may need to be adjusted for specific disorders, they added. 

“One might propose a community- or school-based mental health initiative that screens for and educates parents and teachers on ADHD and anxiety disorders from kindergarten through third grade (ages 5-9 years, when prevalence and resulting disability grow markedly),” Veenstra-VanderWeele and colleagues wrote. “Later initiatives could then focus on mood and substance use disorders during high school and college (ages 15-19 years and 20-24 years).” 

The study was partially funded by a research grant from the Cundill Centre for Child and Youth Depression. Kieling is the founder of Wida. Veenstra-VanderWeele reported receiving grants from the National Institutes of Health and Simon’s Foundation and research support/advisory board/editorial fees from Autism Speaks, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Health Resources and Services Administration Maternal and Child Health Bureau, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Forest, Janssen, Yamo, MapLight, Acadia, Roche, Novartis, Seaside Therapeutics, Springer, SynapDx, and Wiley.

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