The study, published in the August issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that people who had episodes of psychiatric disorder between the ages of 18 and 25 were – by the age of 30 – less likely to be in full-time employment, were earning less money, and had a lower standard of living than people who had not experienced mental health problems.
Dr Sheree Gibb and colleagues from the University of Otago in New Zealand studied 950 people born in Christchurch, a city in the country’s South Island. At age 21 and 25, the participants were asked whether they suffered from symptoms of mental illness, including depression, anxiety disorder, phobias, and drug or alcohol misuse. They were also asked about their employment, income, and educational achievements.
The researchers found that psychiatric disorders during young adulthood were common, with half (50.1%) of the participants experiencing at least one psychiatric disorder (depression, anxiety disorder or substance dependence) between the ages of 18 and 25. Of these, almost two-thirds (65.3%) experienced two or more episodes of illness.
After controlling for other factors, the researchers found that those had experienced psychiatric disorder were significantly less likely to be in paid employment, were more likely to be working part time, were more likely to be receiving welfare, and were earning less money than those who had not had any psychiatric disorder.
The effects were most significant among people who had experienced more than one episode of psychiatric disorder. For example, people who had experienced four or more episodes of illness between the ages of 18 and 25 were four times more likely to be welfare dependent than those who had experienced no episodes (19.4% compared to 4.7%). Similarly, those with four or more episodes of psychiatric disorder worked almost 6 hours fewer per week than those with no psychiatric disorder, and earned NZ$166 less per week.
Dr Gibb said: “Our study reveals that psychiatric disorder during young adulthood is common, and is predictive of a range of negative life outcomes including reduced participation in the workforce, lower income, and a lower standard of living. This suggests a need for further improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric illness, in order to reduce these negative outcomes.”
Dr Gibb continued: “Our study also showed that those people most at risk of negative outcomes are not those who experience any specific type of psychiatric disorder, but rather those people who experience more than one episode or period of illness. We therefore need to develop targeted interventions to help people who experience repeated episodes of illness.”
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Gibb SJ, Fergusson DM and Horwood LJ (2010) Burden of psychiatric disorder in young adulthood and life outcomes at age 30, British Journal of Psychiatry, 197: 122-127