Mental problems manifest themselves at an early age

Assessing the mental health of eight-year-olds is a way of identifying those children with the greatest potential need for psychiatric care in later life. This is one of the findings in David Gyllenberg’s doctoral thesis.

David Gyllenberg

Gyllenberg, who will defend his thesis at the Faculty of Medicine , has studied close to 6,000 children whose psychiatric health was assessed at the age of eight. With follow-ups during adolescence and early adulthood, Gyllenberg investigated which children had received psychiatric hospital treatment or bought psychotropic medication. His research shows that symptoms at the age of eight were linked to an increased risk of psychiatric problems.

“Children who at the age of eight showed symptoms of depression were more than 50% more likely to take antidepressants at some point between the ages of 12 and 25,” says Gyllenberg.

Girls and boys show different symptoms

Often the symptoms suggesting mental problems were different in boys and girls. In boys, the determining symptoms were behavioural problems, such as aggression. In girls, depression and anxiety were linked to an increased risk of psychiatric problems.

“You could say that the boys’ symptoms were extrovert,” says Gyllenberg, “while the girls’ were introvert.”

As many as 15% of the children had taken psychotropic medication at some point before the age of 25.

“This confirms what other studies have shown: a major proportion of the population uses psychotropic medication at an early age,” says Gyllenberg.

Controversial mental health checks

Is there, then, a need for screening such children based on psychiatric symptoms in the school health checks? Gyllenberg, himself a school doctor, has his doubts about that.

“That’s a difficult question. It would be important to identify those children suffering a risk of serious mental problems, but there’s also the risk of the child being branded.”

According to Gyllenberg, screening based on mental symptoms should be based on solid facts.

“There’s no point in systematically identifying children with an increased risk of mental problems if you don’t have the resources needed for providing them with efficient treatment,” Gyllenberg points out.

The dissertation has been published in electronic format via E-thesis » »

David Gyllenberg, Lic.Med., will defend his doctoral dissertation at the Faculty of Medicine on 13 April 2012 from noon onwards » »

Text: Katja Bargum
Photo: Linda Tammisto
Translation: AAC Global
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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