Over 40% of US teenagers experience a mental health disorder in any 12 month period


This new cross sectional study from researchers at Harvard Medical School looks at the prevalence of DSM-IV disorders in over 10,000 teenagers living in the community.

The study looked at a representative sample of young people. Homeless adolescents, school drop-outs and non-English speakers were excluded from the research, even though those who speak a different language make up a significant proportion of the US population (4%).

Researchers interviewed 10,148 adolescents aged 13-17 years old (plus one parent) and used the Composite International Diagnostic Interview to assess whether they had one of the following disorders:

  • Mood disorders (e.g. depression, bipolar disorder)
  • Anxiety disorders (e.g. panic disorder, agoraphobia, phobic disorders, generalised anxiety disorder, PTSD)
  • Behavioural disorders (e.g. ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder, conduct disorder)
  • Eating disorders (e.g. anorexia, bulimia)
  • Substance disorders (e.g. alcohol and drug abuse)

Here’s what they found:

  • During the last 12 months, 40.3% of adolescents had a DSM-IV disorder
  • During the last 30 days, 23.4% of adolescents had a DSM-IV disorder
  • Anxiety disorders were the most common, followed by behaviour, mood, and substance disorders
  • Persistence estimates for any DSM-IV disorder were 79.5% for the 12 month to lifetime ratio, and 57.9% for the 30-day to 12-month ratio
  • Anxiety and behavioural disorders appeared to be more chronic than mood or substance disorders

This study is not without it’s limitations. The interviews that were used to measure lifetime diagnoses relied on the young people and their parents recalling previous illnesses. However, the study was well designed and the results are broadly generalisable to other countries.

The authors concluded:

Among US adolescents, DSM-IV disorders are highly prevalent and persistent. Persistence is higher for adolescents than among adults and appears to be due more to recurrence than chronicity of child-adolescent onset disorders.


Kessler RC, Avenevoli S, Costello EJ, et al. Prevalence, persistence, and sociodemographic correlates of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2012;69:372–80. [PubMed abstract]

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Andre Tomlin

André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He's worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service; an innovative digital platform that helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!

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