As if struggling with chronic medical illness is not challenging enough for young adults, research shows they are also far more likely to develop mental illness than those not facing physical challenges or limitations.

A two-year research study released by the Cambridge Health Alliance followed 48,000 youth between ages 6 and 25 who did not have a mental health diagnosis. Approximately 14 percent of these youth had a chronic physical health problem that required ongoing treatment or posed some form of limitation on their lives. The study revealed that youth with chronic health ailments such as asthma or diabetes are 51 percent more prone to anxiety, 70 percent more prone to mood disorders like depression and 54 percent more prone to behavior disorders.

“This aligns perfectly with what we’ve been seeing in our work with youths,” said Dr. David Bendor, clinical coordinator of the new Young Adult Medical Track at Hartford HealthCare’s Institute of Living. “Significant medical conditions often cause mental health challenges for these young people.

“Sadly, the effect of not addressing mental health issues is that it becomes more challenging for young adults to ensure that their medical needs are met. They may skip medications or medical appointments, or take other risks with their health.”

The most common mental health concerns include symptoms of depression, anxiety and related loss of functioning, he said.

“Often, these are kids who are sidelined from many activities that would otherwise bring them happiness and a feeling of inclusion with their peers,” he said. “They can’t join in on the playground or later on at the gym. They can’t play sports. They may miss a lot of school or work because they’re sick.”

The result, he said, is that they feel left out and isolated. The effect is often cumulative, according to the Cambridge Health Alliance study. Over the two years, rates of mental health diagnoses were 5.6 percent among children ages six to 11, but 7.4 percent in youth ages 12 to 18 and 10.1 percent in young adults ages 19 to 25.

At the Young Adult Medical Track, the team – two psychologists, a psychiatrist and a nurse – work collaboratively with the young adults and their primary care, subspecialty and mental health providers to integrate care and support for both the body and mind.

The program combines individual, group and family therapy with medication management. Participants interact with peers facing similar struggles to explore the losses or limitations posed by their medical conditions while navigating the transition to adult roles. They attend three groups a day, three days a week for six to eight weeks.

Recognizing there is a problem, however, is key to getting help, Dr. Bendor noted.

“It is important for parents, educators, coaches and other adults to be aware of the risks these kids face for developing mental health issues as a result of their physical health challenges,” Dr. Bendor said.

For more information about the Young Adult Medical Track at the Institute of Living,  click here.