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The importance of paying attention to a child's mental health

POSTED: July 22, 2015 1:59 p.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

A new study found that struggling with mental illness in childhood leads to legal, financial, health and social problems later in life.

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The repercussions of mental health problems that begin in childhood will be felt long into adulthood, according to new research.

The study, released this week by JAMA Psychiatry, found that young people diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder were six times as likely to struggle with finances, legal trouble, social problems and health issues as an adult than people their age with a clean bill of mental health.

More than 1,400 children were tracked over time by researchers and assessed annually for "common psychiatric problems, like depression, anxiety and behavioral issues," Time reported.

Researchers paid attention to even mild symptoms associated with mental disorders, testing all participants for signs of anxiety and attention disorders or depression instead of just those who had received a formal diagnosis.

As a result, they determined that children who displayed a "subthreshold psychiatric problem" — meaning they showed some symptoms of disorders like ADHD or depression but not enough to be diagnosed and medicated — were three times as likely to struggle financially, legally or socially than healthy peers.

Addressing these more subtle expressions of mental illness was one of the study's strengths because it brought nuance to a discussion of childhood mental health that's often too limited in its scope, Daniel Klein, a professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University, told NPR.

"As a society we're prone to think of childhood as a relatively carefree life … and most of the mental disorders you think about are in adults, except ADHD and autism," he said. "But the whole gambit are there in childhood."

Earlier this year, there was a report on a new mental health resource that was designed, at least in part, to help parents recognize the signs of mental illness in children. The article noted how common it is for adults to be confused and ill-equipped to help children work through troubling symptoms.

And yet proactive parents and health care providers are a young person's best hope to find the right treatment plan or address mental health issues before they become a full-fledged disorder, as the National Institute of Mental Health has noted.

"We need to focus on prevention and intervention," William Copeland, the study's lead author, told Time. "If we want to reduce the cost and distress associated with many social problems, we really need to address them earlier."
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