Why Do Psychiatric Disorders Originate In Adolescence?
Mental Health Awareness,  Research

Why Do Psychiatric Disorders Originate In Adolescence?

According to WHO in people aged 10 – 9 years mental illness accounts for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury. Almost half of all mental health concerns begin by 14 years of age ( Kessler et al, 2007). In adolescents aged 15 – 19 years sucide is the third major cause of death. Adolescent mental health concerns often tend to continue to adulthood, the consequences of not addressing these concerns impairs the individual both physically and mentally thereby limiting their internal resources and external opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.  Most disorders commonly emerge during adolescence including depression, psychosis, eating disorder, substance abuse, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder (Kessler et al, 2005). 

To understand the cause behind why most disorders appear during  adolescence first let’s take a look at the development changes occurring in the brain during adolescence. Many MRI studies have confirmed that there is spurt of neuronal growth that happens right before puberty. This is kind of like the surge of growth that happens during infancy. This rapid growth of neurons in the brain occurs especially in the prefrontal cortex, the brain area linked to executive functioning that includes decision making, self – control, planning for short term and long term goals and problem solving.This is followed by rewiring of the brain that occurs through the process of pruning (removal of unused synapses)  and myelination ( increase in the fatty sheath surrounding neuronal processes and fibers that increases the speed of electrical transmission).

Neurotransmitters also play a role in affecting the adolescent brain and behaviour like dopamine and serotonin the neurotransmitters involved in pleasure pain experience, mood and impulse control decrease during adolescence which is linked to mood swings, lack of impulse control and difficulties in regulating emotions. The production of melatonin also increases which is linked to an increase in the requirement to sleep. The brain’s neurocircuitry strengthens during adolescence and enables us to process more complex information. However, trauma, intake of harmful substances and chronic stress may have a negative impact on this sensitive period of brain maturation. 

The appearance of certain psychopathology is probably associated with anomalies or an amplification of typical adolescent maturation processes in conjunction with various factors. There are psychosocial factors for example relationships with peers, family members and institutions such as school and environment factors for example access to safe housing, education and substances of abuse. The most studied disorders when it comes into adolescent mental health is schizophrenia, anxiety and affective disorders. Some research has found that exaggeration of typical adolescent changes in the brain has occurred in individuals with schizophrenia. Changes in hormones,  greater emotional responses to social stimuli, and speedy alterations in motivation and reward systems may be the reason for the emergence of anxiety and depressive disorders during adolescence.

With so many rapidly occurring changes in their brain chemistry as well as their environment, adolescents may find it difficult to keep up. Their coping mechanisms may flounder in the face of a crisis when their brain is also going through changes. Therefore, they may be more susceptible to mental health concerns. While environmental factors can exacerbate these issues, a healthy environment and support system can also protect them against these problems.


Kessler RC, Angermeyer M, Anthony JC, et al. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders in the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative. World Psychiatry 2007; 6: 168–76

Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O, Jin R, Merikangas KR, Walters EE. Lifetimeprevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of general psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):593–602. 

Paus, T., Keshavan, M., & Giedd, J. N. (2008). Why do many psychiatric disorders emerge during adolescence?. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 9(12), 947–957. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2513

Zahra Diwan
Zahra is and always will be the optimist, the hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.She believes that imagination and stories are the greatest resources for humanity. She loves everything science fiction and likes learning about philosophy and history along with mental health of course. She cares for herself by treating herself with dark chocolate, walks and painting her versions of starry nights and yin and yang koi fish symbols.

Zahra Diwan, Psychologist

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