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Offord Centre for Child Studies

McMaster University - Health Sciences

McMaster Children's Hospital

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What Puts Children at Risk

Children whose physical, psychological, and emotional needs are unmet are at significant risk for developing a variety of mental health and behavioural problems.  If left untreated at their start, conditions like anxiety and depression will persist into adulthood and can become chronic. Besides the toll taken on the individual with lost opportunities for fulfilling work or personal relationships, there are huge social and economic consequences related to the loss of their productivity.  A study that looked back at the history of over a thousand adults with a current psychiatric disorder found that almost all had had a psychiatric diagnosis during childhood or adolescence. The most persistent conditions were depression and anxiety which were most likely to have developed before the age of 15. The study also confirmed that women were more likely than men to have anxiety and depression.[1] It is important that this is addressed because children whose mothers are depressed often develop psychiatric disorders themselves, particularly conduct disorder or depression. Children with conduct disorder (or its precursor, oppositional defiant disorder) frequently grow up to be adults with antisocial personality disorder, a condition with serious social consequences related to their criminal behaviour. If society is serious about tackling crime, then governments need to start addressing the factors that put children at risk for conduct disorder. One response would be to ensure timely identification and treatment of depression in mothers, a major risk factor for conduct disorder.

There is good, solid evidence identifying the social, biological, psychological, and environmental factors that lead to healthy child development. Governments at all levels need to respond to this evidence and not to calls for stiffer prison sentences or tougher juvenile laws which have not been shown to be effective in reducing juvenile crime.  Prevention and early intervention are key. Along with government, social and medical agencies need to recognize the multiple effects on children and families that are associated with poverty and act together to eliminate these risk factors.[2]

1. Kim-Cohen J, Caspi A, Moffitt TE, Harrington HL, Milne BJ, Poulton R. 2003. Prior Juvenile Diagnoses in Adults with Mental Disorder. Developmental Follow-Back of a Prospective-Longitudinal Cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry; 60:709-717.
2. Shonkoff JP. 2003. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: Old and New Challenges for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics; 24: 70-76.
Last Updated on Monday, 23 February 2009 11:41