Embargoed until 1am Sunday 1 August 2010
Mental illness in youth linked to poorer future
New Zealanders who experience mental illness in early adulthood face a range of negative economic outcomes at the age of
30, latest University of Otago, Christchurch, research shows.
The study, published in the August issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that people who had episodes of
psychiatric disorder between the ages of 18 and 25 were – by the age of 30 – less likely to be in full-time employment,
were earning less money, and had a lower standard of living than people who had not experienced mental health problems.
Researchers studied 950 people born in Christchurch as part of the Christchurch Health and Development Study. At age 21
and 25, the participants were asked whether they suffered from symptoms of mental illness, including depression, anxiety
disorder, phobias, and drug or alcohol misuse. They were also asked about their employment, income, and educational
The researchers found that psychiatric disorders during young adulthood were common, with half (50.1%) of the
participants experiencing at least one psychiatric disorder (depression, anxiety disorder or substance dependence)
between the ages of 18 and 25. Of these, more than half (54.5%) experienced two or more episodes of illness.
After controlling for other factors, the researchers found that those had experienced psychiatric disorder were
significantly less likely to be in paid employment, were more likely to be working part time, were more likely to be
receiving welfare, and were earning less money than those who had not had any psychiatric disorder.
The effects were most significant among people who had experienced more than one episode of psychiatric disorder. For
example, people who had experienced four or more episodes of illness between the ages of 18 and 25 were four times more
likely to be welfare dependent than those who had experienced no episodes (19.4% compared to 4.7%). Similarly, those
with four or more episodes of psychiatric disorder worked almost 6 hours fewer per week than those with no psychiatric
disorder, and earned NZ$166 less per week.
Lead researcher Dr Sheree Gibb said: “Our study reveals that psychiatric disorder during young adulthood is common, and
is predictive of a range of negative life outcomes including reduced participation in the workforce, lower income, and a
lower standard of living. This suggests a need for further improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric
illness, in order to reduce these negative outcomes.”
“Our study also showed that those people most at risk of negative outcomes are not those who experience any specific
type of psychiatric disorder, but rather those people who experience more than one episode or period of illness. We
therefore need to develop targeted interventions to help people who experience repeated episodes of illness.”
The study was funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, a University of Otago Division of Health Sciences
Postdoctoral Fellowship and a University of Otago Postgraduate Publishing Bursary.