Importance: Psychiatric problems are among the most common health problems of childhood.
Objective: To test whether these health problems adversely affect adult functioning even if the problems themselves do not persist.
Design, setting, and participants: Prospective, population-based study of 1420 participants from 11 predominantly rural counties of North Carolina who were assessed with structured interviews up to 6 times during childhood (9-16 years of age, for a total 6674 observations) for common psychiatric diagnoses and subthreshold psychiatric problems. The period for this study was from 1993 to 2010.
Main outcomes and measures: A total of 1273 participants were assessed 3 times during young adulthood (19, 21, and 24-26 years of age, for a total of 3215 observations) for adverse outcomes related to health, the legal system, personal finances, and social functioning.
Results: Participants with a childhood disorder had 6 times higher odds (odds ratio [OR], 5.9 [95% CI, 3.6-9.7]) of at least 1 adverse adult outcome (ie, indicator) compared with those with no history of psychiatric problems and 9 times higher odds (OR, 8.7 [95% CI, 4.3-17.8]) of 2 or more such indicators (1 indicator: 59.5% vs 19.9% [P < .001]; ≥ 2 indicators: 34.2% vs 5.6% [P < .001]). These associations persisted after statistically controlling for childhood psychosocial hardships and adult psychiatric problems. Risk was not limited to those who received a diagnosis; participants with subthreshold psychiatric problems had 3 times higher odds (OR, 2.9 [95% CI, 1.8-4.8]) of adult adverse outcomes and 5 times higher odds (OR, 5.1 [95% CI, 2.4-10.7]) of 2 or more outcomes (1 indicator: 41.9% vs 19.9% [P < .001]; ≥ 2 indicators: 23.2% vs 5.6% [P < .001]). The best diagnostic predictor of adverse outcomes was cumulative childhood exposure to psychiatric disorders.
Conclusions and relevance: Common, typically moderately impairing, childhood psychiatric problems are associated with a disrupted transition to adulthood even if the problems do not persist into adulthood and even if the problems are subthreshold. Such problems provide a potential target for public health efforts to ameliorate adult suffering and morbidity.