Several serious mental health disorders traditionally viewed as illnesses of adulthood are more likely to begin during adolescence rather than any other time of life, a study by the National Institute of Mental Health has found.
The study supports the belief of many experts that a greater emphasis should be placed on diagnosing and treating mental disorders among individuals under age 20.
"These findings underscore the importance of detecting and treating mental illnesses and substance abuse early, before they ruin a person's life," said the institute's director, Lewis L. Judd. "Greater attention to mental health in childhood and adolescence could prevent a great deal of misery and economic loss nationwide."
The study provides the basis for an institute-sponsored public hearing scheduled today in Los Angeles. The hearing is designed to focus greater attention on childhood mental disorders. Compared to research on adults with mental disorders, few studies have examined the development of problems in childhood or how to best diagnose and treat youths, according to experts.
An estimated 7.5 million people under the age of 20 are thought to have serious mental disorders -- about 12 percent of all youths, institute officials report.
Experts at the hearing are expected to discuss the availability of mental health services for youths and review an institute plan recently submitted to Congress to increase funding for research on children and adolescents from $92.3 million this year to $283.3 million in 1995. Only one in five youths with mental disorders receives appropriate treatment, officials say.
But according to the institute study, published in the June issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, people under 20 are in the peak age range for developing depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias and substance-abuse disorders.
The probability study was based on analysis of data from a five-city institute survey of mental health disorders among 20,000 adults that was conducted from 1980 to 1984.
The study indicated that:
* Serious depression is likely to first occur at one of two peak age ranges: 15 to 19 years and 25 to 29 years.
* The most likely period for the onset of alcohol- and drug-abuse disorders is 15 to 19 years.
* The peak time of onset of phobia disorders is between 5 and 9 years.
* Panic disorder can strike during adolescence but most commonly first occurs in the late 20s.
* Obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which individuals are driven to perform meaningless rituals that interfere with daily life, often begins as early as 15 to 19 years among females.
One weakness with the new study was that it relied on the subjects' memory to recall when their symptoms began. Researchers said they did not know why some mental disorders are more likely to begin in childhood and adolescence.