Teens' drinking linked to mental health problems

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Teenagers who drink heavily are also more likely than their peers to have behavioral problems or symptoms of depression and anxiety, a new study finds.

The study, of nearly 9,000 Norwegian teenagers, found that those who said they had been drunk more than 10 times in their lives were more likely to have attention and conduct problems in school. Meanwhile, heavy-drinking girls showed higher rates of depression and anxiety symptoms.

The findings, published in the online journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, are based on a one-time survey. They do not, therefore, show whether the drinking came before or after the teenagers’ other problems.

“We can say that mental health problems (are) closely connected to alcohol drinking and intoxication, but we cannot from these data say anything about which comes first,” explained lead researcher Dr. Arve Strandheim, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

That said, conduct and attention problems do tend to develop early in childhood, and would be less likely to arise in adolescence, Strandheim told Reuters Health.

But regardless of whether drinking problems or other issues come first, the bottom line is that parents should be aware that they often go hand-in-hand, according to the researcher.

The findings are based on a survey of 8,983 13- to 19-year-olds. Eighty percent said they had tried drinking, while 57 percent had gotten drunk at least once.

Among teens who said they had attention problems at school, roughly 43 percent had been drunk more than 10 times -- versus 25 percent of those with little difficulty concentrating in class.

Similarly, 35 percent of teenagers who acknowledged conduct problems -- getting into fights or clashing with teachers -- also admitted to getting drunk frequently. That compared with roughly 27 percent of teens with few conduct problems.

Anxiety and depression symptoms were also linked to more-frequent drinking binges, but only among girls.

It’s important to intervene early to keep all teenagers from abusing alcohol, Strandheim stressed. However, the researcher said, it may be particularly important to pay attention to girls with signs of depression or anxiety, and all teens with attention problems or behavior issues.

SOURCE: Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, online June 23, 2009.