Mental Health Disorders Prevalent Among Youth Worldwide

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) published in Lancet, mental health disorders account for nearly half of the disease burden in the world’s adolescents and young adults. Young people aged 10 to 24 years equal 27% of the world’s population. This age group is important in public health interventions because health problems and risk factors for future disease often appear in these years. This new WHO report provides a comprehensive assessment of the global burden of disease and risk factors that contribute to worldwide morbidity and mortality. The authors used previously-collected data from the WHO’s Global Burden of Disease Study and evaluated global and regional risk factors and disease prevalence.

Overall, mental health disorders were the most prevalent source of disability for young people worldwide, accounting for 45% of total morbidity. Disorders included major depression, substance abuse, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. The next most prevalent causes of disability were injuries (12%) and infectious and parasitic diseases (10%).

In the United States, the prevalence of mental health disorders among adolescents and young adults is substantially lower than what was reported in this study. Approximately one-third of young people in the US meet the criteria for at least one mental health disorder, with anxiety being the most common condition. Comorbidity among mental health disorders is high, and four out of ten young people with one mental health disorder meet the criteria for an additional disorder. Overall, more than one in five young people experience severe impairment or stress due to mental health disorders.

As supported by the US-based studies and WHO data, the prevalence of mental health disorders varies across gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. While data is limited regarding treatment of mental health disorders worldwide, in the US, only half of the young people who need care actually receive it.

Mental disorders that are prevalent in later life can appear during adolescence or young adulthood, and some can appear in early childhood years. This highlights the need for the recognition of the consequences and significance of childhood mental health disorders. Not only does a childhood mental health disorder increase the risk for an adult mental health disorder, it also increases the prevalence of risky health behaviors and other chronic diseases, all of which contribute to morbidity and mortality worldwide.

Worldwide, the health — especially mental health — of young people has been largely neglected until now, since this group is considered to be the healthiest of all. But, this group would likely benefit from increased prevention and early intervention efforts for mental health disorders.


Gore FM, Bloem PJ, Patton GC, Ferguson J, Joseph V, Coffey C, Sawyer SM, & Mathers CD (2011). Global burden of disease in young people aged 10-24 years: a systematic analysis. Lancet, 377 (9783), 2093-102 PMID: 21652063

Merikangas KR, He JP, Brody D, Fisher PW, Bourdon K, & Koretz DS (2010). Prevalence and treatment of mental disorders among US children in the 2001-2004 NHANES. Pediatrics, 125 (1), 75-81 PMID: 20008426

Merikangas KR, He JP, Burstein M, Swanson SA, Avenevoli S, Cui L, Benjet C, Georgiades K, & Swendsen J (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49 (10), 980-9 PMID: 20855043

Patton GC, Coffey C, Sawyer SM, Viner RM, Haller DM, Bose K, Vos T, Ferguson J, & Mathers CD (2009). Global patterns of mortality in young people: a systematic analysis of population health data. Lancet, 374 (9693), 881-92 PMID: 19748397

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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