Is it possible to predict certain types of mental illness in adults from childhood behaviour?
Are there signs in childhood that can indicate what types of mental illness an adult will be predisposed to? Experts think there are.
So what types of mental illness are we talking about?
Depression in adults has been linked to neurotic behaviour, emotional instability and dysfunctional circumstances in childhood. In a UK study, it was shown that out of 965 children with these characteristics, 29% had had suicidal thoughts by the age of 21 and 8% had attempted suicide.
It also appears that the order in which you were born affects your mental state. A Norwegian study found that depression and suicides were more common in children who were not first born. It was thought that birth order somehow affects how our personalities are formed.
Another factor that related to depression in later life is the concept of ‘locus of control’. This is a character trait whereby a person believes they influence circumstances with their own actions. Those children who had high levels of locus of control were less likely to become obese, poor, and rated themselves as having low psychological distress.
2. Anxiety and Panic disorders
Anxiety and panic disorders are other types of mental illness that can be predicted from childhood behaviour. Children suffering from separation anxiety disorder (SAD) have been shown to have a stronger risk factor for anxiety and panic disorders in adulthood.
SAD is a child’s anxious state when separated from their main caregiver. Children with SAD worry about being left alone and fear for the safety of their caregiver. In one study, this risk factor was at 78.6% for developing anxiety and panic disorders.
Another study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, showed that children who showed symptoms of pathological guilt were also prone to chronic depressive episodes. In one group of toddlers aged between 12 and 35 months, those who showed signs of pathological forms of guilt before the age of 3 years were ten times as likely to then go on to having depression in later years.
3. Psychotic mental illnesses
Psychotic disorders depict a person who has problems dealing with reality. They may experience hallucinations, hear voices and be delusional. Psychotic disorders include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and delusional disorders.
Studies have shown that adults who developed a psychotic illness had an impairment in cognitive ability by the age of four. The study, which looked at data collected from over four thousand individuals, charted verbal and non-verbal abilities from 18 months to 20 years. At infancy, adults that went on to develop a psychosis were performing normally, by four years old they were showing signs of deficiencies in memory, attention and processing speeds.
Not only did they have impaired cognitive abilities, but they also had deficits in their IQ scores.
“Verbal IQ,” they write, “declined in early childhood and remained stable thereafter, whereas decline in full-scale IQ and nonverbal IQ continued through adolescence and early adulthood.”
A study in Denmark showed that how well a child functioned in social activities, particularly in the classroom, could also be an indicator of future psychosis. They measured social functioning, which consisted of five different markers:
- The child does not take part in class activities.
- The child has no friends.
- The child is teased often.
- The child does not want to make friends.
- The child avoids contact with other children.
It was shown that children who scored poorly on this test were “on a trajectory toward schizophrenia spectrum disorders,” as they grew older. However, despite these findings, senior study author Dr. Abraham Reichenberg exercised caution:
“It is important to bear in mind that many children will experience some difficulties with school work or other intellectual tasks at some point in their lives, and only a small minority will go on to develop a psychotic disorder.”
4. General problems
In more general terms, one US study, based in North Carolina, collected data from over one thousand children at regular intervals. They measured common psychiatric problems such as depression, behavioural issues and anxiety. Within the group, they found that there were 26% of children who displayed some kind of emotional problem and 31% who displayed a few minor symptoms. Of the 26% of children, 60% then went on to experience mental problems as adults. The 31% who displayed minor problems, 42% also experienced mental problems later in life.
In conclusion, it does appear that there are signs in childhood that can predict how an adult will fare in later life. Obviously, factors such as environment, poverty, neglect and abuse will have an effect, but now we can see that there are other indicators in childhood too.
By addressing any behavioural problems early on in childhood, it might be possible to change the outcome for these children before they reach adulthood. The problem is that there is already a stigma surrounding types of mental illness for adults.
Therefore, is it right to start labelling children with them as well? Dr. William Copeland of Duke University Medical Center, lead author of the North Carolina study believes that:
“We need to focus on prevention and intervention,” he says. “If we want to reduce the cost and distress associated with many social problems, we really need to address them earlier.”
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