young people more troubled than you think

Personality Disorders Rampant in American Youth

February 05, 2009 11:03 AM
by Cara McDonough
A recent study finds nearly half of 19- to 25-year-olds have at least one psychiatric disorder.

Youth Isn’t Easy

While many young people in the United States meet the criteria for various psychiatric disorders, some of the conditions are “relatively mild,” reports The Boston Globe, and include phobias.

Furthermore, said Dr. Paul Barreira, a psychiatrist and director of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling at Harvard University Health Services, the numbers may be high due to an increase in mental health awareness. "Most college counseling people would say students are more depressed today,” Barreira told the Globe. “But my hypothesis is that we're looking for it more and we're better at diagnosing it in high school.”

Still, the numbers indicate an undercurrent of distress among college-aged individuals, and there are a number of reasons these disorders may afflict the young, such as anxiety about the future. Ronald Kessler, a medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School, says young life is complex, because “there is all kinds of stuff going on at the same time, including raging hormones.”

Perhaps more alarming, many young adults often don’t get the help they need for disorders, including obsessive or compulsive tendencies and anti-social behavior. Dr. Mark Olfson of Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute coauthored the recent study. Olfson said he believes that because so few young people—less than 25 percent—get treatment, that college administrators and others who run mental health programs need to work on the problem.

There were some slight differences in the data between those who attend college and those who do not. For instance, depression and anxiety affect college students slightly less than those who are not students. But the biggest source of anguish was universal among all young people: love. According to the study, emotional problems were more than twice as common among students who had suffered a major loss, commonly a romantic breakup.

Related Topic: Youth, violence and mental health

The stress of youth often comes to light only in the most extreme cases. The public was shocked on April 16, 2007, when 23-year-old Seung Hui Cho killed 27 students and 5 professors at Virginia Tech before shooting himself. It was discovered after the tragic event that Cho suffered from mental disorders and had received therapy for some years prior to his rampage. Still, the university and the public never could have predicted his actions.

When 27-year-old Steven Kazmierczak opened fire at Northern Illinois University in February 2008, killing six including himself, the question of youth, mental health and violence was raised again. Investigators said the former student had recently stopped taking medication and had become “somewhat erratic,” reported ABC at the time.

But another recent study shows that mental health disorders on their own are not necessarily good predictors of violent behavior.

The findings, collected by U.S. researchers who analyzed data collected from nearly 35,000 people, suggest that mental illness by itself does not make a person more prone to violent acts, although mental illness combined with substance abuse does heighten the risk.

People with severe mental illnesses are no more likely than any member of the public to commit a violent act, reports U.S. News & World Report, in a story on the study. One interesting finding, however, is that on the study’s list of the top 10 predictors of future violence, age ranked first, as young people are more likely to commit a violent act.

Reference: The study, mental health


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