Children who experience chronic health issues in early life are far more likely than their healthy counterparts to experience negative mental health effects throughout their adolescent years, claims a recent study. For India and its patchy track record for child health, this could have dire implications.
The study, published in the journal Development and Psychopathology, noted that children reported to have chronic health problems showed higher rates of mental health issues at ten years old. Of particular concern is that the long-term findings of the study show that these mental illnesses were found to persist until the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Given a wider scope to the study, it could be the case that these mental illnesses could persist longer, or even become a permanent issue.
The study analysed a sample of 7,000 children to investigate the occurrence of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety and the presence of chronic illness throughout their childhood years. Chronic conditions were defined as those that cannot be cured but can be controlled by medication and other therapies.
It was found that at ages ten and thirteen, children with such conditions were more than twice as likely as their healthy counterparts to report mental health concerns. These mental health issues alleviated slightly by age fifteen, though did not subside, with a sixty percent higher rate reported among the group with chronic conditions.
Among the diseases listed under chronic conditions, the study focused on one which often has only mild effects — asthma. It was found that even among asthmatic children the rate of mental health issues showed a similarly high level.
The study has, however, suggested that the development of mental health problems may not be a physiological issue, but rather a societal one. Children with chronic conditions often have their lives impacted in a number of ways. Among them are issues in family functioning, lack of friendships, lower activity levels, bullying and health-related absenteeism from school. Any number of these issues can cause issues in children. A combination of them while the child is also dealing with physical health effects can have profound effects on mental health and development.
The findings present a dual issue for India — a lack of capacity to deal with mental health issues, and a number of factors causing chronic illness in children.
In a report published by Save the Children last year, in an index of 176 countries, India placed 113th. The report notes the presence of 46.6 million children afflicted by stunting, indicating high rates of malnourishment — a factor placing children at risk of numerous diseases. While vaccination rates were noted as relatively high, countless children still miss out on routine immunisation, leaving them prone to disease.
Such a burden of childhood conditions, according to this latest study, could predispose India’s children to mental health conditions. According to the Indian Council of Medical Research, around one in seven Indians suffer from some manner of mental health condition.
Despite around 197 million individuals in the country affected by mental health conditions, mental healthcare accounts for just 0.16 percent of the government budget for health. In addition, there is an acute shortage of psychiatric professionals in the country. Data indicates that there are 0.3 psychiatrists, 0.12 psychologists and 0.07 social workers for every 100,000 Indians
“This research provides the strongest evidence of it [the connection between childhood illness and mental health effects] to date in the years of late childhood and early adolescence. The difference chronic conditions make to mental health is concerning, and the first impact can be seen even before adolescence, in late childhood,” said study author Dr Ann Marie Brady from the Queen Mary University in London.
The study highlights an observance held across many aspects of healthcare — improving the health of children improves the health of the nation. By reducing disease impact during childhood the risks of many conditions across the fields of mental health, noncommunicable diseases and even infectious disease. Improving child healthcare is both a necessity and an investment in the future of the country.
If you are suicidal or experiencing suicidal thoughts, visit your nearest hospital or contact AASRA on 91-22-27546669 or Sneha India on 91 44 24640050 helpline. A list of other suicide helplines can be accessed here.