Moody teenagers? Giving them a greater say in health policy might solve this

Cross posted from The Ethics Blog

We have all heard of moody teenagers. Maybe we have them, or can remember being one. Recent research with my Australian colleagues suggests they may genuinely have more difficulty living with poor mental health than adults do.

Specifically, compared to the general public aged 18+, they are more likely to view mental health related impairments as being worse than physical disabilities.

This is not just an academic curiosity – if true, it means society is probably under-investing in child mental health. To explain why, we must first understand how most European countries decide on health funding priorities.

In general, disabilities with the greatest capacity to benefit from treatment are prioritised. To find out whether pain, depression, or some other, physical, impairment to health is worst – and therefore has the greatest potential benefit from treatment – nations conduct large population-based surveys. These require adults to make choices between lots of possible impaired health states in order to find out just how bad these are, relative to each other.

Of course, people often disagree on what is worst, and by how much, so decisions must be made as to whose values matter most. European nations generally agree that it is unethical to allow the rich to dictate what disabilities are most deserving of resources. Instead of “one € one vote”, it is “one person one vote”: taking a simple average of every adult’s values does this naturally.

Whilst this sounds fair and democratic in terms of process, it could be leading to uncomfortable outcomes for our moody teenager. Why? Well, if poor mental health is genuinely worse for teenagers than adults believe it to be then mental health interventions might not get funded: for example, if adults think pain is much worse, pain medications will be prioritised instead. This is because only adults are being asked for their health values, not teenagers.

So perhaps adults just don’t remember what it’s like to be young and we should use the teenagers’ values for health interventions that affect them?

Maybe not. There is a saying “age brings wisdom” and perhaps adults’ greater experience of illness means their values for mental health impairments are the correct ones. Maybe younger people have simply not experienced enough in life to know what aspects of illness are really worst. After all, immaturity is one reason why younger teenagers are not allowed to vote.

The ethical issues surrounding at what age teenagers can have sex, vote and make independent decisions in public life all become relevant here. However, “one person one vote” has one more disturbing implication that is relevant for people of all ages. By taking an average of everyone’s views, national health state value surveys include lots of healthy people who have no idea what it is like to live with severe illness. Does this matter? Well, it turns out that to the depressed patient in desperate need of a new anti-depressant it probably does.

Patients and the general public tend to disagree on which is worst – extreme pain or extreme depression. The general public gets the final say and my next blog entry will discuss how and why we might use the health values of patients themselves in priority setting instead.