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Childhood mental health disorders can be pervasive, often remaining and recurring throughout life. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry explored how access to mental health services during childhood may affect the incidence of adult psychopathology using a longitudinal design studying children in predominantly rural areas of North Carolina. The study assessed 1,420 children with a diagnosed psychiatric disorder and reassessed these children in adulthood. They discovered that participants who accessed mental health services in childhood did not show any reduced risk of adult psychiatric disorders compared to those who did not access childhood mental health services. “There’s a gap between the tools we are creating and implementation in the real world,” said Dr. William Copeland, a researcher at the University of Vermont Medical Center who led the study.
Most psychiatric disorders develop during childhood or adolescence, highlighting the importance of focusing on early risk factors and establishing a strong childhood mental health system. As evidenced by this study, the current system is geared towards reducing impairment at the time of treatment. In contrast, mitigating risk for adult disorders may depend on many other factors. Notably, Copeland and his colleagues controlled for twelve different variables, such as family socioeconomic status and childhood trauma, between the groups of children who did receive services and those who did not. This helped isolate the use of services as the predicting variable of adult psychiatric risk. “I think this is one of the strengths of our study…we tried to mimic a randomized design within an observational framework,” Copeland said. The findings in this study do not invalidate the importance of early life intervention and access to services but rather emphasize the pervasiveness of mental health conditions, underscoring the importance of intervention at several points across a lifespan.