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Age of onset of mental disorders and use of mental health services: needs, opportunities and obstacles

  • G. de Girolamo (a1), J. Dagani (a1), R. Purcell (a2), A. Cocchi (a3) and P. D. McGorry (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 13 December 2011
Purpose of review.

In this review, we provide an update of recent studies on the age of onset (AOO) of the major mental disorders, with a special focus on the availability and use of services providing prevention and early intervention.

Recent findings.

The studies reviewed here confirm previous reports on the AOO of the major mental disorders. Although the behaviour disorders and specific anxiety disorders emerge during childhood, most of the high-prevalence disorders (mood, anxiety and substance use) emerge during adolescence and early adulthood, as do the psychotic disorders. Early AOO has been shown to be associated with a longer duration of untreated illness, and poorer clinical and functional outcomes.


Although the onset of most mental disorders usually occurs during the first three decades of life, effective treatment is typically not initiated until a number of years later. There is increasing evidence that intervention during the early stages of disorder may help reduce the severity and/or the persistence of the initial or primary disorder, and prevent secondary disorders. However, additional research is needed on effective interventions in early-stage cases, as well as on the long-term effects of early intervention, and for an appropriate service design for those with emerging mental disorders. This will mean not only the strengthening and re-engineering of existing systems, but is also crucial the construction of new streams of care for young people in transition to adulthood.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: Giovanni de Girolamo, M.D., IRCCS Fatebenefratelli, Via Pilastroni 4, Brescia, Italy. (Email:
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