Treating children for anxiety 'would cut risk of mental illness'


Jeremy Laurance
Monday 05 September 2011 00:00 BST

Children should be screened for anxiety disorders to prevent them developing severe mental problems in later life. Treating anxiety early would be the single most effective way of reducing the burden of mental disorders – one of the most common causes of disability in the developed world, according to Professor Hans Ulrich Witten, lead author of study of the state of Europe's mental health.

It is estimated that 38.2 per cent – 165 million people – of people in Europe suffers from a mental disorder and that anxiety is the commonest. All age groups are affected but some conditions, such as eating disorders, are more prevalent among the young and others, such as dementia, commoner in the elderly. The findings of the three-year study, which covered 30 countries and more than 500 million people have been published in the journal European Psychopharmacology.

The incidence of depression has doubled since the 1970s and the average age at onset has fallen from the mid-twenties to the late teens as adolescents lost their sense of security in a changing world, Professor Witten said.

Anxiety disorders affect 14 per cent of the population and effective treatment at an early stage can reduce the later development of depression by 60 per cent. Professor Witten said: "We screen for dental caries [decay] – why not for anxiety, ... because the potential treatments are so effective?"

Women aged 25–40 ran three to four times the risk of men in the same age group of suffering from depression, he added. "There are incredibly high rates of depression when women have babies, raise children and have to cope with work and family. It is the most critical time for the rest of the family."

Anxiety disorders could also be a warning sign of neurodegenerative illnesses, such as Parkinson's disease. Professor Witten said: "Treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy are so effective. You can treat an individual for anxiety with 10 or 20 sessions and get a sustained long-term response, reducing the risk of later depression. Depression leads to brain atrophy."

Professor David Nutt, head of the department of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, said: "If you can get in early you may be able to change the course of the illness so people don't progress on to disability."

However, Professor Thomas Insel, director of the US National Institute for Mental Health cast doubt on screening for anxiety. He said: "To get a risk calculator for anxiety we need biomarkers – and we don't have them yet."

They would, however, become available over the next decade, he added.

The age of anxiety

69 million suffer anxiety disorders

30.3 million with clinical depression

29.1 million suffer insomnia

20.4 million show stress symptoms

The 2011 project covers 30 European countries (514 million inhabitants)

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