Exploration of changes in outpatient clinical presentation and diagnosis in children and adolescents at a South African community service and psychological training centre from 1987 to 2009.
Child and adolescent mental health represents a key area of concern and public health relevance. Mental health disorders are one of the most prevalent illnesses affecting young people and contribute significantly to the global burden of disease. Childhood and adolescent mental health problems often persist into adulthood and as such frequently result in lifelong negative consequences. Yet despite the growing concern with regards to the mental health needs of children and adolescents, not much research, both internationally and particularly locally, has focused on the provision of mental health services to children and adolescents. Additionally, little has been published on the changes and trends in diagnostic rates and assessment procedures over time. Only a few international studies have investigated mental health trends in children and adolescents; hence, there is a crucial need for South African data to inform preventative and curative services for children in South Africa. This present study therefore investigated the trends and patterns relating to diagnostic rates and assessment practices in children and adolescents over time at a local South African psychological community service centre in Pietermaritzburg. The study was a retrospective chart review and the sample consisted of 679 case files from children and adolescents between 3-17 years of age, who had been seen at a local psychological service centre between 1987-1989, 1997-1999 and 2007-2009. The case files were systematically analysed with regards to diagnosis and assessment practices. It was hypothesised that the years of continuous social and political conflict in the Pietermaritzburg area, namely 1987-1989, had a direct impact on the psychological development and well-being of children and adolescents from this area, and that this would be reflected in the case files from the corresponding years. The research findings with regard to the assessment practices were comparable to the internationally observed trends relating to choice of tests and procedures. In addition, the findings of the current study also showed similar trends with regard to the increasing diagnostic rates for ADD/ADHD, Mood Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorders as were observed internationally. Additionally, the reported decreasing diagnostic rates for Mental Retardation and behaviour disorders were also found in this local study. However, the internationally observed increases in Anxiety Disorder diagnoses contrast with the findings of this study, where the results revealed that the rates for Anxiety Disorder and PTSD were considerably higher in the late 1980s and 1990s. This finding supports the initial hypothesis that the violence and social unrest had an effect on children’s psychological well-being.