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Adolescents wait a long time before seeking help for a psychiatric disorder

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17 March 2017

​Following the onset of a psychiatric disorder, it often takes many years for adolescents to seek help. The earlier the onset of the psychiatric disorders, the longer it took for adolescents to seek help. This is the result of research conducted by sociologist Dennis Raven of the University Medical Center Groningen, in collaboration with Friesland Mental Health Services (GGZ Friesland). Raven published his study in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. His article was selected by the European Psychiatric Association (EPA) as the best article in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry published over the past year.

Psychiatric disorders are common and often develop as early as in childhood or adolescence. Only a minority of adolescents with a psychiatric disorder receives professional help. Earlier studies among  adults demonstrated that people often wait a long time, sometimes decades, before seeking professional help for a psychiatric disorder. Dennis Raven was first to study how long it takes for adolescents to seek professional help. For his study, Raven used data from TRAILS (TRacking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey), an ongoing research on the psychological, social and physical development of adolescents and young adults, with more than 2500 participants who took part from the age of 11. Psychiatric interviews with these participants were conducted when they were approximately 19 years old.

Seeking help many years later

Raven’s study showed that adolescents also wait a long time, often many years, after the onset of a psychiatric disorder before seeking professional help. Many TRAILS participants with a childhood-onset psychiatric disorder had not – or not yet – sought help at the age of 19. The general trend appeared to be: the earlier the psychiatric disorder onset, the longer it takes for adolescents to seek help. Adolescents were relatively quickest to seek help for mood disorders, such as depression; but even for depression, only one third of TRAILS adolescents sought help within a year.

No difference between types of healthcare

In his study, Raven looked at professional healthcare in general as well as specialized mental healthcare. The outcomes were virtually the same.

Symptoms go unnoticed or are seen as part of an adolescent’s identity

As a possible explanation for his finding that it may take a long time for adolescents with problems to seek help, Raven suggests that symptoms may go unnoticed. This could be the case if the symptoms are not disturbing enough to the adolescent’s environment, or because the symptoms are perceived as being part of the child’s identity (“that’s the way he/she is”). It is also possible that adolescents and those around them develop strategies to deal with the symptoms. Such strategies often become less effective when life demands more self-reliance, and consequently the need for care develops later on. Adolescents depend on their parents and teachers for access to healthcare, so it is important that they recognize – or learn to recognize – adolescents’ psychological problems.

EPA prize

The EPA prize is awarded to young researchers working in the field of psychiatry. Dennis Raven will receive the prize (a certificate and €2000) on 1 April during the EPA conference in Florence, Italy.