Identifying Mental Health Problems Before Puberty

Puberty marks a transition in risk for the onset of mental health problems, but the earliest symptoms often begin before the physical changes of puberty start. Recent research funded by Australian Rotary Health has found different levels of adrenal hormones in primary school children can predict some of these problems.

In 2015, Dr Lisa Mundy from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute was awarded an Australian Rotary Health Mental Health Research Grant to investigate the pubertal risks for mental health disorders.

“Our analyses have looked at the earlier surge of hormones at adrenarche, sometimes referred to as adrenal puberty. Adrenarche begins around 7 years of age and is the first hormonal cascade in the pubertal process,” Dr Mundy said.

“This is the first study in the world to look at links between adrenarche and mental health problems.”

Students participating in the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS) provided a saliva sample for the measurement of levels of adrenal hormones in Years 3 (8-9 years), 5 (10-11 years) and 6 (11-12 years). They also reported on their depressive and anxiety symptoms.

“We have found that high levels of adrenal hormones during Years 5 and 6 predict depressive symptoms in Year 7 (12-13 years of age) and this seems to be stronger for girls than boys.”

“We also found that 6% of boys and 10% of girls had symptoms of anxiety.”

Higher levels of adrenal androgens were also associated with greater body dissatisfaction in both girls and boys.

“For example, a doubling of testosterone levels was associated with greater body dissatisfaction for girls and boys,” Dr Mundy said.

“These findings suggest that early adrenarche is a risk factor for mental health problems. This may have important implications for future interventions targeted at reducing mental health problems.”


For publications from the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study, visit the website here.


Media contact: Jessica Cooper – (02) 8837 1900 or


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