Mental Health Disorders Are a Leading Cause of Childhood Illness Worldwide
A decline in infectious diseases opens up this dubious top spot.
As efforts to combat the world’s most common childhood infections start to pay off, infectious diseases, while still a leading cause of childhood illness globally, are decreasing. This means, globally, mental health disorders now make up a larger proportion of illness among children between ages 5 to 14.
The authors were quick to note this change is not due to an increase in mental health disorders, but rather a fall in the prevalence of infectious diseases. A study of six regions designated by the World Health Organization — Africa, the Americas, South-East Asia (which includes India), Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the West Pacific — found the prevalence of children’s mental health disorders is high and constant. Among them, conduct disorders and anxiety disorders particularly accounted for the greatest proportion of the disease burden.
“We found that the prevalence of mental disorders in young people remained stable between 2000 and 2015, which suggests that mental disorders are not decreasing in young people despite the global improvement of their physical health,” said Marie-Laure Baranne, of the French national institute for health research. Baranne is a co-author of the study published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health. “In the future, the decrease of other, preventable diseases, such as diabetes, will lead to an increase in the importance of treating mental disorders for public health.”
The implications are stark, as the effects of mental health disorders tend to be longer lasting, particularly when treatment isn’t available. Of the top five leading causes of childhood illness in South-East Asia, mental health came second in terms of years lived with disability. The only other illness group to have such long-lasting effects for the 5 to 14 age group was nutritional deficiencies.
None of this is particularly new, but the researchers say the report is intended more as a look forward and call to action. As the burden of infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies decreases, attention will need to shift to include addressing children’s mental health concerns. And since many emerging economies, like India, lack the infrastructure of care for mental health disorders, as well as a cultural attitude of acceptance, easing the burden of children’s mental health disorders will require changing hearts and minds, in addition to overcoming the medical, logistical, political and infrastructure challenges to combating infectious diseases. As the report notes:
“For example, most consider that Hodgkin disease is clearly much more severe than anorexia nervosa, although the prognosis for survival is the same for both. Mental disorders, which are still considered mysterious in most societies because they are supposed to affect the mind more than the body, are often neglected and even denied by populations. Policy-makers are thus often tempted to cut spending in this domain. This is even truer for child and adolescent psychiatry, where some pathologies, such as conduct disorders, are considered deviance rather than a health problem that requires compassion and care.”
It’s a long game that governments and other institutions need to start planning now, the authors say.
“It’s important for these countries to be aware of this phenomenon to anticipate and prepare their healthcare systems to take care of them,” Baranne said.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.