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Can Mental Illness Spread Among Teens?

May 24, 2024 From Medscape

A new study suggests that teens with classmates affected by mental illness are more likely to develop psychiatric conditions at a later age, even after taking into account parents’ mental health history and other factors. This is according to research that followed more than 700,000 ninth graders in Finland for 18 years. 

For example, it was indicated that having a classmate with a mental illness made the risk of a subsequent diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder higher by 3%. Such risk reaches 13% in the first year of follow-up, and for many years, it remains high for mood anxiety and eating disorders. Jussi Alho, lead investigator and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki stated that “the associations observed in the study are not necessarily causal.”


Key findings

This cohort involved 713,809 students, with about 666,000 being followed from ninth grade until their first diagnosed mental disorder, death, emigration, or the end of the study in 2019. The increased risk of being diagnosed with any of the mental disorders was found to be 3% higher and was the highest in the first year.

It has identified a dose-response relationship: the more classmates are seen to have a psychiatric illness, the higher the risk of mental illness. Authors of the current study claim that mental disorders may be ‘transmissible’ within peer networks of adolescents. Although such terminology has not been used previously in the relevant literature, it is assumed to correctly point out the possible mechanisms by which mental disorders may be transferred within peer groups.


Transmission Mechanisms

This has raised speculation that the potential of the school environment for containing peers with psychiatric diagnoses raises the awareness level among the students regarding psychopathological disorders and diagnoses, and in turn, raises openness towards diagnoses and treatment. In other words, it prevents several cases from going undiagnosed and untreated due to the lack of diagnosed peers. 

UT Southwestern Medical School’s Dr. Madhukar H. Trivedi added that peer influence can sometimes lead to normalizing mental health conditions. “Their peers kind of get implicit permission to be able to express their symptoms or express their own problems, which they may have been hiding or not recognized,” said Trivedi. 


Implications for Treatment 

The study suggests that there might be a need to point toward some interventions to help adolescents cope with these mental health challenges and understand influences coming from peer mental health. The results speak to the idea that addressing mental health in a communal context may be a critical pathway to acting on the mitigation of long-term risks for the onset of psychiatric disorders among teens.




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