Are some mental disorders temporary?


Maybe he’ll snap out of it.

The mood swings. Evasiveness. Drastic changes in performance at school. A lack of interest in activities he used to enjoy. Substance abuse.

These and other symptoms are often signs of mental illness in adolescents. Many mental disorders begin during adolescence; the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports half of all lifetime mental illness cases begin by age 14.

It’s a finding similar to statistics reported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). According to NAMI, 20 percent of adolescents aged 13 to 18 experiences severe mental disorders each year. Treatment is often delayed as well; NAMI also states nearly half of youths aged between 8 and 15 with a mental illness receive no treatment.

Just thinking about the phrase “mental illness” is enough to give the average parent the chills. Although mental illness is certainly treatable in children, a diagnosis carries with it a serious stigma. Although NIMH reports that some children get better with time, but many will require treatment throughout their life. However, a recent study conducted in Australia found brief episodes of mental illness in childhood may not indicate a lifetime problem.

Contrasting studies

In 2014, results from a study conducted by researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia were published in The Lancet. The researchers studied nearly 2,000 adolescents from 1992 to 2008, checking them for mental disorders at certain points in their lives. According to the study, mental disorders had to be at a “level at which a family doctor would be concerned.”

Although the findings showed over half of the adolescents went on to report at least one more mental health incident in adulthood, over half of the adolescents who had one short mental health incident in childhood had no further problems in adulthood. “The resolution of many adolescent disorders gives reason for optimism that interventions that shorten the duration of episodes could prevent much morbidity later in life,” the researchers wrote.

A study conducted in 2009 by researchers from the University of Missouri found similar results with bipolar disorder. They discovered nearly half of their subjects who had been diagnosed with the disorder between the ages of 18 and 25 seemed to have outgrown the disorder by the time they reached 30. But that’s not always the case for some disorders.

Take attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a common disorder that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports affects up to 11 percent of children aged between 4 and 17. In 2013, a research team from Boston Children’s Hospital and Mayo Clinic tracked nearly 6,000 children from childhood to adulthood. Over 350 of the children had been diagnosed with ADHD. The research team found 29 percent of the children with ADHD still had the disorder as adults, 81 percent of whom had at least one other psychiatric disorder.

The importance of treatment

Writing for the Child Mind Institute, psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz, M.D., warns “children are less likely to ‘grow out’ of psychiatric disorders than they are to ‘grow into’ more debilitating conditions” later in life. Certainly, early treatment of mental illness can benefit the patient, as untreated mental illness can have disastrous results in a patient’s life. Mental Health America (MHA), a nonprofit advocacy group for mental health patients, breaks down mental illness into four distinct stages:

    • Stage one: Patients are still able to function more or less normally, but those around them notice warning signs, perhaps with a sensation that something is slightly “off.”
    • Stage two: Patients are usually obviously mentally ill at this point, creating problems at school or work as well as with family.
    • Stage three: The patient’s life is often severely disrupted by his or her symptoms, with multiple symptoms occurring at once.
  • Stage four: Symptoms of mental health disorders are severe and persistent at this stage. Events such as unemployment, homelessness and/or hospitalization often occur during this stage. MHA warns untreated mental illness can cause death an average of 25 years early.

White River Academy, a therapeutic boarding school for boys aged 12 to 17, understands the important of early treatment and management. Our staff of compassionate experts help their students reach their full potential. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. 

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