Psychiatric disorders in youth leave lasting mark


People who suffer mental illness between 18 and 25 are more likely to experience a range of negative economic effects later in life, according to research from the University of Otago.

Studying 950 people born in Christchurch, researchers found that those who reported suffering from a psychiatric disorder (depression, anxiety disorder, substance dependence, etc) in early adulthood were, at age 30, less likely to be in in paid employment or working full time, were more likely to be receiving benefits, and were earning less money than people who had not experienced such disorders.

Further, the effects worsened as people experienced more than one such episode – as an example, people who had experienced four or more episodes of mental illness were four times more likely to be dependent on welfare benefits, worked on average 6 hours less per week, and earned over $150 dollars less per week, than those who not experienced psychiatric disorders.

The research also showed that the problem is a common one – just over half of those studied had experienced at least one psychiatric disorder between 18 and 25, and two thirds of these people had experienced two or more incidences of illness.

The research, say its authors, shows the importance of early, effective intervention, and that it’s not so much the type of illness, as its frequency, that is important.

The Science Media Centre approached local experts for comment on the paper’s implications. The research itself can be accessed in the SMC Resource Library.

Dr Marc Wilson, of the School of Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“While the question of lifespan impact of psychological problems is an international one, it’s great to see such an important contribution from close to home! While it’s pretty unsurprising that psychological problems during young adulthood can have an ongoing impact on subsequent wellbeing and life outcomes, there has been a question about whether this is due to the psychological problem itself, or the things that might in turn influence that psychological problem in the first place. For example, experiencing childhood abuse is associated with greater psychological problems in later life, and you could argue it’s the impact of that abuse that explains later-life underachievement rather than the psychological problem itself. Thanks to the Christchurch Health and Development Study, we can say that experiencing psychological problems during young adulthood is an important predictor of later-life problems (for example, poorer educational and workforce achievement), EVEN AFTER you take into account many of the things that are themselves predictors of later life problems. In fact, the more psychological problems experienced, the greater the underachievement.

“While the majority of people working in mental health would argue that here is not enough funding for mental health in general, this research emphasises something that shouldn’t be a surprise – even in a limited funding environment shouldn’t we be putting as much as we can into identifying at-risk adolescents and treating psychological issues BEFORE they become not just a problem for the individuals affected, but also the communities to which they belong? ”

Dr Daniel Shepherd, of the School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies at AUT University, comments:

“Fergusson and collaborators have an enviable access to a world class dataset capable of impacting both health policy and practice. While much research has targeted health-related quality of life of individuals with psychiatric diagnoses, this study examines more objective outcomes such as employment and education. The design of their study affords an estimate of inequalities between those with, and those without psychiatric diagnoses, and between individuals with differing numbers of diagnoses. The authors have shunned over-complicated and unnecessary analyses to provide a clear picture of the relationship between psychiatric illness at one time point and negative life outcomes at another.

“This study will raise awareness of the prevalence of mental illness in New Zealand young adults, and the negative impacts of psychiatric illness, which hitherto have not been sufficiently disentangled from other confounding factors. A most important finding is the equality of disorder type (i.e., anxiety, depression, substance abuse) in predicting negative life outcome, and the greater impact of comorbidity / dual diagnosis. For me, this latter finding underlies the immense value of the paper, and begs the question as to how we change our current practices to more effectively treat those with multiple psychiatric diagnoses.

For more information, or to contact any of the experts above, contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email: