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Youth of today wish they weren't bornl

There is a deep irony in the imbalance in our knowledge about physical and mental health. It's a little known fact that young people in the western world are far more likely to suffer mental rather than physical ill-health.

The "one in four" figure often bandied about (that one in four of us will suffer from a clinical psychiatric problem at some point in our lives) could even be a serious underestimate. New research from the US suggests that 48 per cent of adults at some time in their lives will suffer from symptoms serious enough to warrant an official diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder, although most don't realise they are ill and might never go to the doctor. Perhaps more startling still is the statistic that at least 40 per cent of general practice consultations involve mental health problems, and in any one week 10 per cent of adults are depressed.

But few people realise that depression can be a fatal illness.

Two-thirds of suicide victims in Britain are under 35, a dramatic figure which means suicide is now one of the leading causes of years of life lost through death (an illness in old age obviously takes away fewer years of life than the death of a young person). Five thousand people commit suicide and more than 100,000 attempt to kill themselves every year.

But mental illness is much more than depression. Included among a gamut of psychological problems are eating disorders (rising rapidly in young girls), anxiety and worry (thought to be more common than depression), addiction and psychosis. The list goes on: one in 10 young adults suffers from long-term personality problems at any one time; one in four adults will suffer or suffers from alcohol dependence andor other substance abuse problems; one in five adults suffered serious anxiety symptoms in the past year.

But it is perhaps most sobering to realise that these psychiatric problems tend to strike fit young adults, stripping many of them of their most productive years. Which is all the more reason for us to aim to prevent psychiatric disorder rather than merely treat it. Prevention has become the watchword in the rest of physical medicine. But as psychiatric problems become increasingly common in the teenage years, any prevention programme must be based in schools. Life skills and coping strategies for dealing with stress are probably the most important part of any modern curriculum.

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, and director of the Centre for Public Engagement, King's College London.

His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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