Adolescent mental health problems translate into GP costs in adulthood

Our figures foreshadow the true costs of mental health to the NHS
- Derek King
Girl with head in hands. Counselling on Pixabay

Conduct and emotional problems in adolescents today could cost the NHS nearly £630,000(1) annually in GP visits alone in adulthood, says new research published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology (2).

The study found that conduct and emotional problems in adolescents, particularly when they exist together, are linked with relatively high GP costs in adulthood.

The researchers analysed data from three birth cohorts born in single weeks in 1946, 1958 and 1970 (3).  Each cohort’s rate of use of GP services in adulthood were examined to calculate different estimates for the future primary care costs of UK adolescents.

For example, by extrapolating from the most recent cohort of adolescents studied, who were born in 1970, young people today experiencing emotional and conduct problems together will create an extra 6500 visits per year to the GP in adulthood at an annual cost of nearly £250,000 by the time they are 50 years old. Conduct problems alone will lead to nearly 3200 extra GP visits and cost £125,000. Emotional problems alone will lead to 6300 extra GP visits, costing £247,000.

Dr Derek King, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow in the Care Policy and Evaluation Centre, and lead author of the research said: “Our figures foreshadow the true costs of mental health to the NHS.  While we only estimate the costs to GP services, we know that many of these visits will lead to a referral to another specialist.”

The researchers found that the link between mental health problems in adolescence and a higher rate of GP use as an adult was generally stronger in women. For example, for those with both conduct and emotional problems and where at least one was categorised as ‘high severity’, costs increased between 24 per cent and 46 per cent.

Dr King said: “We know that adolescent girls experience greater anxiety than boys, and if this persists it may explain women’s higher use of GP services in adulthood. It may also reflect women’s greater willingness to seek a GP’s help for their health issues.”

Dr Sara-Evans Lacko, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow in the Care Policy and Evaluation Centre and one of the authors of the research, said: “Pressure on primary care services could be eased if conduct and emotional problems could be prevented or successfully managed in adolescence. This is particularly important given that rates of adolescent mental health problems are growing and that we know they are linked with poorer health, social and economic outcomes in later life.”

Behind the article

(1)    Based on data extrapolated from GP use by participants in 1970 British Cohort Study

(2)    Effects of mental health status during adolescence on primary care costs in adulthood across three British cohorts

(3)    The research was based on data from the MRC National Survey of Health and Development (1946), the National Child Development Study (1958) and the 1970 British Cohort Study