Depressed Adolescents Delay Contact With Mental Health Services

Adolescents with a diagnosis of depression delay contact with mental health services increasing their risk of disease duration and recurrence – discovers a new University of Cambridge study published in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Of all the adolescents who suffer from depression, only 34–56% approach psychologist/psychiatrist or other mental health services.  The proportion is highest in the UK – approximately 71% – but constitutes of children seeking help from the teacher only as a mental health service contact.

Sharon AS Neufeld, a research associate at Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge and the lead author of the study stresses on the improvement of teen access to mental health services. His findings show that an early contact with mental health services at age 14 in children with mental disorders can markedly reduce the risk of depression at 17.

“Our findings show that contact with mental health services at age 14 years by adolescents with a mental disorder reduced the likelihood of depression by age 17 years. This finding supports the improvement of access to adolescent mental health services.”

The longitudinal study spanned from 2005 till 2010 and recruited 1,238 adolescents ages 14. All children had mental disorders. Their caregivers, too, were part of the study. Some of the children or their caregivers were reported to contact mental health services a year before the study began. The children first went under assessment for affective (mood) disorders and schizophrenia at 18 and 36 months of the study.

Children complained of depressive mood. The researchers noticed that the teens who contacted the mental health services showed better improvement in depression than those without a contact. Compared to the adults accessing mental health services, the tendency is lower in teenagers.

Researchers also noticed that the children who did not contact mental health services were seven times more likely to suffer from depression and recurrence by age 17.

Until this study came forward, evidence regarding the association between service contact and improved mental health; was scarce. This study is the first of its kind to demonstrate the benefit of early contact with mental health services and improvement in mental health in adolescent children.

Why Is Early Diagnosis Of Depression Important In Adolescents?

If undiagnosed and untreated, depression that begins in adolescence is likely to continue into adulthood.

Depression is a cluster of psychiatric symptoms that severely hamper an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing. It is characterized by extreme sadness, irritability, mood reactivity and behavioral problems.

UK Mental Health Statistics show that the prevalence of depression has nearly doubled in last two decades in the UK. Currently, there are more than 80,000 adolescents and young adults with a diagnosis of depression. In fact, depression can begin as soon as when the child is 10 or younger. Currently, over 8,000 children in the UK, aged 10 and less, suffer from clinical depression.

Depression hits young patients harder and has longer spells and rates of recurrences and hospital admissions. Teenagers who suffer from mental disorders, including depression, also entertain suicide ideation. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents. Of those who attempt suicide, depressive disorder accounts for more than half of the cases.

Albeit undiagnosed, unipolar depressive disorder is fairly common in adolescents. The incidence is higher in girls. Unipolar depressive disorder refers to depression without mania in which the mood stays fixed at one point or one pole – lowest!

The strongest risk factor for depression in teenagers is a family history, genetic predisposition and psychosocial stress. Teens affected by depression are also less likely to approach mental health services which propels them in the vicious cycle of depression recurrence and longer duration of miserable episodes.

Depression is 100% treatable. Early identification in teen years would not only reduce the misery but would also prevent the possible sequelae. Evidence shows that the use of mental health services shunts depressive symptoms in teens who witness or brave community violence.

A worrying fact, however, is that despite the increasing prevalence and demand, the UK National Health Service (NHS) has cut spending on children’s mental health by 5.4% (£41 million) since 2010.

A lack or inaccessibility of treatment, as demonstrated by the study, can provoke nasty bouts of depression or magnify into full fledge panic attacks in depressed children.

The study also highlights the fact that there needs to be a policy to encourage early clinical diagnosis in teens to reduce the mental and financial burden of the disease. Giving his arguments, Sharon AS Neufeld writes,

“Measurement of the treatment gap—the discrepancy between disorder prevalence and proportion treated—is a prerequisite to enable policy makers to prevent such adverse sequelae from arising.”

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