A fellow mental health mom (a freaky term for us, but hey, it fits) asked me last week about a statistic that states 0.1% of the population of children have childhood onset schizophrenia. There are reports that this is the case, but statistics vary. I read one recent report that suggested two in every million children are afflicted, which would mean in the US, where there are 62 million children under the age of 15 as of 2010, there would be only 124 cases. That seems exceptionally low. Another said it was one sixtieth the rate of the standard adult onset type. In either case, however, if the statistics are accurate, they both place childhood onset schizophrenia squarely in the definition of an orphan disease.
Or is it? It is accepted that 0.7% of the adult population has schizophrenia. In the US that would mean there are about 1.7 million adults living with this disorder. Is it really possible that more than 1.69 million of them had no symptoms before the age of 15? And, if 50% of mental illness cases begin in childhood, wouldn’t it be logical to assume 50% of people with schizophrenia exhibited symptoms when they were kids?
I watched Boy Interrupted on HBO last week, a heart breaking but interesting documentary made by the parents of Evan Perry, a 15 year old diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder that committed suicide by jumping out his New York apartment bedroom window. In the film his psychiatrist talks about diagnosing Evan and he says something very important: the idea that a child can have a severe mental illness is a new concept in psychiatry. As recently as the 1980’s it was still believed that it wasn’t possible for children to have depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Just 30 years ago. And plenty still don’t believe it today. Explains why there isn’t enough research on childhood onset mental illness, doesn’t it?
So on this World Mental Health Day, I’d like to encourage everyone to consider education, research, and resources for childhood onset mental health conditions. We need to know more about how mental illnesses develop, particularly severe mental illnesses, so that we can get more adults into recovery by starting their treatment when symptoms first appear, even if they appear in childhood.