A young boy upset and crying on the stairs.

New research links childhood mental health and quality of life for young adults

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Children with mental health issues are more likely to have poor mental and physical health in their late teens and early 20s and are at greater risk of social isolation, low educational attainment, financial difficulties and heavy substance use.

That’s according to new research led by RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, which examined a wide range of data from more than 5,000 children and young adults in Ireland. The findings, published in JAMA Network Open, are drawn from the ‘Growing up in Ireland’* study.

The researchers, from Ireland, the UK and Australia, followed trends of mental health throughout childhood (ages 9-13) for 5,141 people. The findings point to the need for better screening and treatment of mental health problems in childhood and adolescence, which may prevent problems later on in life. 

The vast majority (72.5%) of participants whose data were analysed reported no significant mental health difficulties, but more than 1,400 individuals appeared to have some type of mental health or behavioural issue across childhood.   

Mental health symptoms often come and go throughout childhood and adolescence, hence not over-relying on symptom levels at one point in time. The researchers, from RCSI’s Department of Psychiatry, decided to investigate children who had persistent reports of mental health symptoms, regardless of whether they met the criteria for an official diagnosis. 

Range of outcomes 

The study looked at how these patterns of childhood mental health affected a range of outcomes in late adolescence and early 20s. The study took a broad approach to life outcomes, examining aspects such as Leaving Certificate results, social isolation and how often they used health services as young adults, poor physical health issues (e.g. obesity, sleep difficulties), heavy substance use (alcohol, smoking), and/or the young person’s general feelings of well-being.   

Importantly, the researchers also took different types of childhood symptoms into account, such as whether a child tended to internalise their symptoms (as in depression and anxiety), externalise their symptoms (as in hyperactivity and behavioural problems), or both.   

The research found that children with externalising symptoms are at increased risk of heavy substance use as young adults. Children with internalising symptoms are at the highest risk of poor physical health in their late teens and early 20s.   

The data also showed that those who had mental health issues in childhood were as likely to encounter educational/economic difficulties in young adulthood as they were to face further mental health problems. Over 50% of children with mental health issues had at least one educational or economic difficulty by young adulthood, compared to around 30% of those without mental health issues in childhood.  

The study was funded by the Health Research Board through an investigator-led project to Professor Mary Cannon.  

*Growing up in Ireland was commissioned by the Irish Government and funded by the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, and the Central Statistics Office. 


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