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Teen Emotional Problems Go Unnoticed

Clinical Depression, Anxiety Disorders, PTSD Found in Many Adolescents
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WebMD Health News

Aug. 4, 2003 -- Nearly one-fifth of the nation's teens are suffering from emotional disorders.

Some have faced violence and abuse in their lives and have enormous difficulty dealing with it. The result: clinical depression, even posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For others, the trouble is internal -- they battle an inherited anxiety disorder, triggered by troubling life experiences.

Unfortunately, few adolescents are getting the psychological help they need.

Two studies, appearing this week in two of the country's top psychology journals, address these issues.

The studies should be a wake-up call for parents, school counselors, teachers, and psychologists, says Alan Delamater, PhD, director of clinical psychology in pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

"Don't ever underestimate the emotional difficulties kids may be having," he tells WebMD. "Many people minimize these things, think they're a phase, think the kids are weak. These problems are real."

Kids React to Violence

Dean Kilpatrick, PhD, director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, has studied the issue extensively.

"Shocking numbers" of adult women have been victimized, his studies show. "We found that most traumatic events occurred when they were children and adolescents -- not when they were adults," he tells WebMD.

In their current study, Kilpatrick and colleagues conducted telephone surveys of 4,023 boys and girls, ages 12 through 17, asking them carefully worded questions about the major traumatic experiences in their lives to uncover incidents of sexual assault and physical assault, as well as witnessing violence in person (not in the movies or on TV).

Researchers also asked questions intended to gauge the symptoms of PTSD, clinical depression, and substance abuse or dependency in the teens.

The findings: "A high percentage of teens -- nearly one-half -- had experienced some traumatic event in their adolescent years," he reports. Some 40% had witnessed violence in person.

Other statistics:

  • Those who witnessed violence were three times more likely to be involved in substance abuse.
  • Those who had a physical assault were twice as likely to have clinical depression.
  • Sexual assault victims were 80% more likely to suffer from PTSD than other teens.

In fact, teens very often suffered from more than one emotional disorder, as other studies have discovered. "It seems to be more the norm than the exception," says Kilpatrick.

"Violence is a problem, and violence-related mental health disorders are also a problem," he tells WebMD. Also, the disorders do not go away with time, he reports. "This indicates they were not getting effective treatment."

Kilpatrick's study appears in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

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