More than half of children with diabetes, asthma, juvenile arthritis and other diseases have mental health problems, a Canadian study suggests.
The research, “Mental disorder in children with physical conditions: a pilot study,” appeared in the journal BMJ Open.
A quarter of children have a chronic physical condition requiring ongoing treatment, experts say. These disorders can lead to other illnesses, including mental health problems.
Compared with children with either a physical or mental disorder, children with a combination of the two have worse physical and mental health problems, the researchers wrote.
They said a better understanding of the links between physical and mental illnesses is essential to coming up with better family-centered ways to treat these children.
The University of Waterloo-led researchers decided to do a pilot study of how many children with a newly diagnosed physical condition develop a mental health condition as well. Another focus of the research was how dual physical-mental problems affect the children’s and their families’ quality of life.
The study covered 50 children aged 6 to 16 who were recently diagnosed with either asthma, a food allergy, epilepsy, diabetes or juvenile arthritis.
Researchers asked parents to assess their child’s mental health and quality of life. They also asked the parents about their own stress, anxiety and depression. And they asked the parents how they felt their family was functioning. The parents’ responses came in telephone interviews and email surveys.
In addition to surveying parents, the researchers ask children aged 11 and older for their views.
According to the parents’ reports, 58 percent of the children had at least one mental disorder, and 22 percent multiple mental disorders. Anxiety disorders, which included generalized anxiety, separation anxiety and phobias, were the most common disorders reported, affecting 36 percent of the children.
Researchers found a disconnect between the parents’ and children’s views of the children’s mental health. The answers that the children provided suggested that only 18 percent of them had a mental health problem.
The disconnect prompted the researchers to recommend that medical professionals obtain multiple perspectives when assessing children’s mental health.
Another finding was that the prevalence of mental disorders was similar across different physical conditions, with one exception. Researchers said attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional-defiant disorder were more prevalent in children with a food allergy.
“These findings show that risk for mental disorder is relatively the same among children with different physical conditions,” Mark Ferro, a professor in Waterloo’s School of Public Health and Health Systems, said in a news release. He was senior author of the study.
Researchers also discovered that children with both physical and mental problems were worse off than children with just one of the challenges.
“Regardless of their condition, children with physical and mental health problems experience a significant decline in their quality of life within the first six months after receiving their [physical problem] diagnosis, indicating a need for mental health services early on,” Ferro said.
If additional research in a larger group of children confirms the study’s results, then scientists need to make doctors aware of the findings so they can “prepare themselves to discuss mental health with children and their parents,” the team concluded.