Obesity can be harmful to your child's mental health

October 01, 2003

Children who are obese are at increased risk for emotional problems that last well into adulthood, according to several studies and experts on the subject. Obesity and the mental disorders they contribute to should be considered as serious as other medical illnesses, they say.

The American Psychiatric Association joins others in the medical and public health community in calling attention to the mental health impacts of childhood obesity--a burgeoning public health crisis in the U.S.

A study at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey found that obese girls ages 13 to 14 are four times more likely to experience low self-esteem than non-obese girls.

The study also reported that obese boys and girls with low self-esteem had higher rates of loneliness, sadness and nervousness. These children were more likely to smoke and drink alcohol compared with obese children with normal self-esteem. Depression, often an outcome of low self-esteem, affects as many as 750,000 teens in the U.S. (Source: Pediatrics, "Childhood Obesity and Self-Esteem," January 2000.)

Untreated depression can be both the cause and effect of obesity. "As a practicing child psychiatrist, I see a clear association between obesity and depression and anxiety disorders among children and teens," notes David Fassler, M.D., an APA Trustee and child and adolescent psychiatrist from Burlington, Vermont.

A recent University of Minnesota study reveals that children who were teased about being overweight were more likely to have poor body image, low self-esteem, and symptoms of depression. The study found that 26 percent of teens who were teased at school and home reported they had considered suicide, and 9 percent had attempted it. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. (Source: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, "Associations of Weight-Based Teasing and Emotional Well-being Among Adolescents," August 2003)

Obese children between the ages of 10 and 13 have an 80 percent chance of being obese adults. Children are considered obese when their weight is at least 10 percent higher than recommended for their age and height. (Source: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Facts for Families, January 2001.)

Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Distress

According to Dr. David Fassler, parents should be alert to the following signs and symptoms that might indicate an overweight child or teen is experiencing emotional distress:

How to Help Your Child

It is important for parents to understand the problems and risks for obese children. Dr. Fassler offers these suggestions:
-end-
The American Psychiatric Association is a national medical specialty society, founded in 1844, whose 35,000 physician members specialize in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illnesses including substance use disorders. For more information, visit the APA Web site at http://www.psych.org.

American Psychiatric Association

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