Some mental illnesses can show up at any point in a person's life, but some first occur during specific stages of lifespan development. In this lesson, we'll look closer at some disorders that appear in childhood, adolescence, and old age.
Kara is 13. She's always been a little different from other kids. She doesn't show as much emotion, and she moves awkwardly. But recently, something else has started happening. She's started hearing things. At first, her parents just thought she had an imaginary friend, but Kara now spends almost all her time talking and responding to voices that no one else can hear. It's obvious to the people around her that there's something wrong with Kara. But, why are her symptoms getting worse now?
Mental illness, like height and weight, develops and changes throughout a person's life. And, like height and weight, psychological disorders often first become very pronounced in adolescence or late childhood. Many psychologists study human development, or the way people change and grow psychologically throughout their lives. Particular attention is paid to psychological disorders that first become prevalent in childhood or adolescence, as well as disorders that show up in old age. Let's look closer at some psychological disorders that begin to show up in childhood, adolescence and old age.
Psychosis in Adolescence
Remember Kara? She's always had very little emotion, and she has issues with movement. Lately, she's also been hearing voices. Kara might be suffering from early onset schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder that involves auditory hallucinations, delusions and other symptoms. Schizophrenia usually becomes obvious in the late teens or twenties, but sometimes children and adolescents can be diagnosed with it. When the disorder affects someone younger than 18, it is called 'early onset.'
Schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis are relatively rare and even more so in people under the age of 18. Approximately 1 in 100 adults have schizophrenia, but the number for children and adolescents is more like 1 in 40,000.
But, even though a diagnosis of early onset schizophrenia is rare, adults diagnosed with schizophrenia often showed warning signs when they were young. For example, children might show little emotion or show emotion at inappropriate times, like laughing during a serious conversation. Schizophrenic adults were also usually awkward or uncoordinated in their movements as children.
Finally, adolescents, in particular, often show early signs of disordered thinking, which includes being unable to follow a train of thought, losing track of what they were saying or spacing out in the middle of a sentence and jumping around from thought to thought.
Despite the fact that schizophrenia is usually not diagnosed until the twenties, early intervention increases the chances that a patient will be able to lead a happy and productive life. The problem is that the symptoms that show up early in life can be a sign of many other diseases, like autism or movement disorders.
Since psychotic disorders usually run in families, children who show warning signs and have a family history of psychosis are often diagnosed with early onset of a disorder. For example, if Kara has an aunt with schizophrenia, she's more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than if there is no family history of psychosis. This helps doctors start treatment early, which can help patients like Kara tremendously.
Early Onset Bipolar Disorder
Kara carpools with a boy named Max, who is 11. He has some of the same symptoms as Kara. He either doesn't show any emotion at all or he shows inappropriate emotions. Max sometimes also has emotional outbursts that seem to be out of proportion to whatever caused them. For example, when a stoplight turned red and their carpool driver had to stop and wait, Max threw a temper fit, screaming and kicking the seat in front of him.
But then, Max will sometimes show very little emotion. He'll act very tired and complain that his stomach hurts. He seems to go back and forth between being ho-hum about everything and being really emotional.
Max might be suffering from early onset bipolar disorder, a mood disorder that involves swinging between depressed and manic states. Like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder is usually first diagnosed in a person's late teens or twenties. And, like schizophrenia, some people (like Max) can be diagnosed with early onset bipolar disorder.
Again, though, children and adolescents who aren't diagnosed with early onset bipolar disorder may still show signs of the disorder. A common warning sign of mania is mood swings that are not normal, like being extra silly or joyful and then acting extra irritable. Trouble concentrating, sleeping less and talking rapidly are also manic signs that can sometimes be traced back to childhood. More often, though, children and adolescents will show few manic signs but many depressive signs. These include being tired or listless, showing little or no emotion and complaining of physical aches and pains more than normal.
Since bipolar disorder, like schizophrenia, has a genetic element to it, children and adolescents with family members who suffer from bipolar disorder are more likely to be diagnosed with it. If Max does not have a relative with bipolar disorder, he might be diagnosed with another mental disorder or he might just be seen as a temperamental kid.
Mental Illness Across the Lifespan
People don't stop growing and changing when they reach adulthood. Instead, people develop across their lifespan - from birth all the way to death. As such, developmental psychologists study mental illnesses that develop later in life, as well as in childhood and adolescence.
Besides schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, there are many other mental illnesses that develop at different times during a person's life. Anxiety disorders, like phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorder, usually develop in a person's teens or twenties, though they can develop in children as young as five years old. Substance-use disorders, like alcoholism or drug addiction, often begin to develop in a person's mid to late teens. The number of people with a substance use disorder continues to be high in the early twenties and then drops off somewhat.
However, there's another uptick in the people who develop substance use disorders as people approach old age. For a variety of reasons, including depression, less responsibility and a difference in the way the body responds to drugs and alcohol, many people begin to have substance use problems after retirement.
In addition, some psychological disorders, like dementia and delirium, primarily affect older adults. As people age, their brains are not as effective at processing information, and therefore they sometimes develop psychological problems.
Human development is the study of how people grow and change as they age. There are many psychological disorders that first appear in childhood or adolescence. Mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are rarely diagnosed in childhood, but when they are, they are called early onset schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Finally, there are some mental illnesses, like substance abuse, dementia and delirium, that affect people as they age.
Following this lesson, you will be able to:
- Describe the study of human development
- Explain why a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in childhood is considered early onset
- Summarize why a family history of mental illness is important to a patient's diagnosis
- Identify examples of mental illnesses that might develop as people age