updated 6/6/2005 4:05:37 PM ET 2005-06-06T20:05:37

Most mental illness hits early in life, with half of all cases starting by age 14, a survey of nearly 10,000 U.S. adults found.

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Many cases begin with mild, easy-to-dismiss symptoms such as low-level anxiousness or persistent shyness, but left untreated, they can quickly escalate into severe depression, disabling phobias or clinical anxiety, said Ronald Kessler, a Harvard Medical School researcher involved in the study.

That so many cases begin in people so young — three-fourths start by age 24 — “is just staggering” and underscores the need for better efforts at early detection and treatment, Kessler said.

'Chronic disorders'
“These disorders have really become the chronic disorders of young people in America,” said Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which helped fund the research.

The findings, published in the June issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, were based on face-to-face interviews conducted with people ages 18 and older in 2001 through 2003.

The new figures also show that the prevalence of mental illness nationwide has stabilized for the first time since the end of World War II, Kessler said.

About 46 percent of people surveyed said they had experienced a mental illness at some point in their lives, and about 26 percent said they had within the previous year — rates similar to those reported in a 1994 version of the survey. Before the earlier survey, rates had steadily increased since the mid-1940s, Kessler said.

The previous increase was probably at least partly due to better detection and awareness, Kessler said.

The overall prevalence rate is probably an underestimate because the study included only English-speaking adults and excluded rarer illnesses such as schizophrenia and autism.

Most ailments were mild. Only about one-fifth of those who reported any mental disorder within the past year had a serious illness, meaning their daily activities were severely affected.

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