Helping Early May Help in Unexpected Ways
Posted on 11/07/2011 | 4 Comments
Our team has been doing some interesting work in school mental health for a few years now. Much of it has been focused on enhancing mental health literacy for teens (through a secondary school curriculum) and teachers (through a variety of different mental health for educators training programs) as well as facilitating early identification and effective treatment for young people who have a mental disorder – such as depression, panic disorder; etc. While the potential mental health benefits of early identification and effective treatment are relatively easy to understand, there are other benefits that may be less evident but also very important. One area of such benefit is found in relation to a number of physical illnesses: diabetes; heart disease and maybe even some forms of cancer!
We have known for some time now that mental disorders are risk factors for a number of other illnesses. That means that the presence of a mental disorder (such as depression) can increase the probability that a person will develop another illness (such as diabetes). There is also some evidence that suggests that having a mental disorder following the onset of another illness, such as heart disease, increases risk for early death from that disease. Although there are many hypotheses about why this may happen, we do not yet really know how this happens and research into understanding how this may happen is currently underway. Did you know that the same brain chemical that is involved in controlling mood (serotonin) may also be involved in controlling how platelets clump together in the blood? Could it be that problems with serotonin function in the brain can result in depression and at the same time may make blood clotting (which could lead to strokes or heart attacks) more of a problem? Ongoing research may help us better understand this issue.
So, it may also be that if we can better identify, diagnose and effectively treat young people when they first develop a mental disorder, we may also be able to decrease the risk of them developing another illness – such as heart disease, diabetes and perhaps even some forms of cancer. Or, if not that, maybe early and effective treatment of mental disorders might delay the onset of another illness or maybe improve treatment outcomes. Right now we do not really know the answers to these questions but being aware of this possibility is really important for us – both personally and for public health reasons.
Secondary prevention, meaning the prevention of another illness by effective treatment of a pre-existing disorder, of some physical illnesses might be achieved by early effective treatment of a mental disorder during the teenage years. This is an exciting possibility! Will this pan out? We don’t know yet. But, to my way of thinking, there is enough evidence on this possibility already available to further underscore the need to better identify, diagnose and treat mental disorders in young people. We know what needs to be done – now we only have got to get our act together and do it!