Mental illness is more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults

Mental illness is more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults
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Why isn’t everyone more upset?  A disease is killing our children and it’s more deadly than cancer and leukemia!

Out of curiosity, I did some research on child mortality rates from various causes because I wanted to know how death from mental illnesses compared with other fatal illnesses of childhood and adolescence. The results were astonishing, unexpected, and disturbing.

Look at the highest bars in this graph. They are 3-4 times the height of average cancer and diabetes rates in children. There are gaps in the available data, but this simple comparison is disturbing.

Mortality rates per year per 100,000 children by cause and age range.

Childhood Illness Age Range Annual Deaths per 100,000 Children
Cancers, leukemia: 5-14 yrs 2.6
Cancers, leukemia: 15-19 yrs 3.6
Childhood diabetes: Avg. 15 yrs 2.2
Anorexia: 15 – 24 years 6
Suicide ** 10 – 14 years 1.6
Suicide ** 15 – 19 years 9.5
Suicide ** 20 – 24 years 13.6


* The starting point for the mortality rates of medical illnesses was the website for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdcp.gov  in Atlanta; the starting point for the mental illnesses was the website for the National Institute for Mental Health, www.nimh.gov.

** The suicide data was from those with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and psychotic disorders-unspecified.  (Suicide from other mental health causes, such as borderline personality disorder and co-morbid substance abuse is also prevalent, but I could not find data for children to young adult age ranges.)

On suicide:

  • It’s often normal for children and young people to think about suicide, but just in their imagination. They might consider it during some painful time in their lives, but there are no plans made or steps taken.  When the difficult times are over, they don’t think about it any more.
  • For children who can’t endure stress, thoughts of suicide recur over time, starting as early as age 6 or 7.  These children are vulnerable to repeated intrusive suicidal thoughts because they live with a combination biological, psychological, and social/relationship causes (called “biopsychosocial”).  More about this is explained here: “Use the “S” Word: Talk with your Child about Suicide.”
  • There are ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ suicides in young people.
    • The ‘fast’ ones are 1) direct self-harm that has been planned, or 2) spur-of-the-moment suicide due to an extreme emotional reaction to a single intolerable event (examples: a boyfriend/girlfriend or best friend dies; a teen has a serious fight with a parent and (without planning) wants to ‘get back’).
    • The ‘slow’ suicides result from a persistent pattern of harmful behaviors that eventually lead to death.  Young people struggling with anorexia can die by heart failure or other causes due to their weakened body.  Others abuse substances and/or participate in extremely risky activities that expose them to multiple lethal situations:  overdose, criminal environments, disease.

This graph screams out for a changes in attitude, policy, and investment in children’s mental health treatment and suicide prevention.  I had no idea that death rates from mental illness could be 3 to 4 times higher than most cancers and leukemia.  It is imperative that young people with mental health issues receive as aggressive and sensitive treatment as is expected and demanded of medical systems that treat cancer in children.

Parents: talk about this. Talk to your child; share it on social media; and talk to mental health organizations about what you can do.

The data on mortality rates for mental illnesses was difficult to find, and it required searches in many different medical journals and websites.  I chose to use the data on cancer, leukemia, and diabetes because the mortality rates from these are high and because deaths from all other causes were insignificant by comparison (motor vehicle accidents are the one exception).  In this graph, the death rates for cancer and leukemia are averages for the different forms of each, and in the medical journals they were presented together.

I welcome additions or corrections of this data from any other sources, and encourage readers to investigate this for themselves.

–Margaret

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2 Comments

Filed under bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, mental illness, mental illness, parenting, psychiatry, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, suicide, teenagers

2 Responses to Mental illness is more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults

  1. mike

    great article! Not enough is being done. kids are suffering everyday with these unbearable illnesses that I believe are treatable. We are in an era of great discovery in neuroscience. Seemingly every day a new study comes out discovering or unlocking once hidden aspects of these disorders. I believe it should be a government priority to fast track new therapies in a timely fashion and deliver them to the families and sufferers of these terrible illnesses. Whats the hold up?
    Are the pharmaceutical companies to blame? Is the FDA to cumbersome? People are barely hanging on for their lives and so much more can be done.

    • Hello Mike,
      You are right-on to suggest that therapies should be fast tracked and delivered to families. Families are critical to the person’s success throughout their lives. In addition to the government, I believe the mental health profession and its associations should put families first, as well as their patients. We spend so much on other fatal diseases–for goodness sakes, why not more on mental health diseases in teens?

      Thanks and take care, Margaret

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