One-Third of U.S. Teens Have Both Mental and Physical Illness

Let’s say your 15-year-old son has type 1 diabetes. As if one ailment isn’t enough, he stands a 33 percent chance of also suffering from a serious mental illness. That’s the message of a new study that found thousands of American adolescents are shouldering what could be a double whammy of health conditions. Among nearly 6,500 U.S. teenagers between 13 and 18 years old, researchers found that one-third of them had both a physical and a mental illness. And certain disorders were linked with specific medical conditions. Depression, for example, occurs more often with digestive disorders. The study by researchers at Switzerland’s University of Basel and the Ruhr-Universitat found that, along with the depression link, eating disorders were more often than average associated with seizure and anxiety disorders, heart disease, digestive conditions and arthritis. The research report was published in April 2015 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

Double Trouble

The term for this double trouble is “co-occurrence,” which is simply having two conditions at the same time. There can, of course, be co-occurring mental conditions as well. For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that about half of people with severe mental disorders are also impacted by substance abuse, with 53 percent of substance abusers and 37 percent of alcohol abusers also having at least one major mental illness. And of the total number of people diagnosed with a mental condition, 29 percent are abusing drugs or alcohol, the NAMI reported. Of co-occurring conditions in the Swiss study, authors noted in their abstract that there is not yet a causal link between the mental and physical illnesses. But the same results were also consistent with prior research of adults, the research team wrote. “Findings suggest that mental disorders and physical diseases often co-occur in childhood,” the study authors concluded. “This association is a major public health challenge, and the child health system needs additional strategies in patient-centered care, research, medical education, health policy, and economics to develop well-coordinated interdisciplinary approaches linking mental and physical care in children.”

Co-Occurring Conditions: Burdening Global Health Care

Such simultaneous physical disease and mental disorders — usually chronic — are daunting to global health care systems and are gaining worldwide focus by government health authorities, according to the World Health Organization. What’s more, a 2013 Duke University survey of 10,000 U.S. teenagers found that more than 50 percent of those with psychiatric conditions are getting no mental health treatment. If they do receive care, it’s seldom from a mental health specialist.

Treating Physical and Mental Conditions Together

“Future studies should identify risk factors as well as the biological and psychological mechanisms responsible for these associations, in order to develop interdisciplinary approaches,” said Marion Tegethoff, PhD, first-author of the study. She says treatment of the physical and mental conditions each should take into account the other. “This would lead to better health care for children and adolescents and would prevent unfavorable long-term effects for individuals as well as for the health care system in general,” Dr. Tegethoff said. By Nancy Wride Follow Nancy on Twitter at @NWride

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