Childhood is an invaluable period in a person's life when it comes to cognitive, mental, and emotional development. The stunting of any of these areas can last into adulthood, whether the cause was a traumatic event or lack of education. A child’s brain is still developing, and things that affect its existence during this critical time have the potential for far-reaching consequences.

Though we’ve known that psychiatric problems often develop during childhood years and continue into adulthood, a new study suggests that psychiatric disorders in children have the potential to negatively affect their adult lives even if the disorder itself does not continue on into adulthood. These childhood issues could affect financial, health, and legal aspects of adult life, and have the power to do so even if they do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for a disorder.

The study involved the periodical assessment for psychiatric diagnoses and subthreshold psychiatric problems in 1,420 individuals aged 9 to 16 —it looked at issues that do not meet the official diagnosis criteria. The participants were then assessed three times during young adulthood (between the ages of 19 and 26) for adverse outcomes in various categories.

Of the participants, 26.2 percent met the criteria for a behavioral or emotional disorder at some point in their childhood or adolescence. Thirty-one percent displayed subthreshold psychiatric issues, and 42.7 percent did not meet any of the criteria for a psychiatric problem.

When it came to issues in adulthood, 59.5 percent of the individuals who had a childhood psychiatric disorder reported adverse outcomes, and 41.5 percent of participants that had subthreshold problems reported adult outcomes. These were compared to the 19.9 percent of individuals without any childhood psychiatric problems who reported negative adult issues.

Participants with a childhood disorder had a risk of at least one negative adulthood outcome that was six times higher than those who had no history of psychiatric problems. The study stresses that the high risk of adulthood issues was not limited to those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders; participants who had subthreshold psychiatric problems when they were kids still had three times higher odds of adverse adulthood outcomes than those with no history of psychiatric problems.

"Many children will experience impairing psychiatric problems over the course of their childhood,” the authors of the study wrote. "These common early disorders are often associated with a disrupted transition to adulthood… and with each additional exposure to childhood psychiatric problems, the prognosis becomes more dire. If the goal of public health efforts is to increase opportunity and optimal outcomes, and to reduce distress, then there may be no better target than the reduction of childhood psychiatric distress — at the clinical and subthreshold levels.”

The authors of this particular study note that they cannot make certain conclusions and that the group they sampled is not representative of the U.S. population.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, millions of American children live with mental disorders. The most common disorders among the entire 3- to 17-year-old population are ADHD (6.8 percent), behavioral or conduct problems (3.5 percent), anxiety (three percent) and depression (2.1 percent).

Source: Copeland W, Wolke D, Shanahan L, Costello J. Adult functional outcomes of common childhood psychiatric problems: a prospective, longitudinal study. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015.