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Depression in Children Myth or Reality


I have always believed that the sources of human distress lie in an individual’s story and the research facts presented in my recent article ‘A Crazy Idea’ spoke for themselves regarding there being no evidence for a biochemical basis to human misery. Whilst I have no doubt that those professionals who subscribe to the notion of mental illness are well-intentioned, there is the conundrum that they do not appear to have kept abreast of research findings. The position that needs addressing is that physicians either don’t read the research literature or they do read it and ignore it – in both situations there is a case to be answered. It seems that it has taken over two hundred years for psychiatrists to begin to realise that the causes and cures for human desperation be in relationship, not in biochemistry.


A sad reality is that the idea that adult distress could be explained by neurochemistry is also applied to children in distress, the more common conditions being ADHD and bi-polar depression. The Lancet 2004 editorial spoke about the chemical imbalance explanation for childhood depression as being ‘one of confusion, manipulation and institutional failure.’ Furthermore, the fact that leading psychiatrists had colluded with drug trials where negative results were hidden or downplayed or given a positive spin constituted an ‘an abuse of the trust placed in physicians.’
As in last week’s article on ADHD, two questions need to be posed on childhood depression:


Since the 1980s children and adolescents are the first in human history to grow up under the threat of ‘mental illness.’ Before that time young people who acted-out, bullied, were shy and timid, teacher’s pets, ‘nerds’, inattentive, over-active were considered more or less normal and it was expected that they would eventually find their niche in life. Over the span of the last thirty years, schoolyards have become populated by children diagnosed with mental disorders, most notably ADHD, depression and bi-polar depression. The parents of these children are told that there is something wrong with their children’s brains and that they may have to take psychiatric medications for the rest of their lives, just like a ‘diabetic takes insulin.’ However, what parents have not been told is that, in spite of fifty years of research, the chemical underpinnings of ADHD, depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia remain unknown and that the prescriptions of drugs for these conditions has no basis in research. Neither have parents been told of the side-effects and long-term effects of these medications. In short, there is no chemical that fixes human distress. Yet, there has been a forty-fold rise in the number of children and teenagers with the diagnosis of bi-polar depression from 1995 to 2003. Summarising the research on the use of lithium, antidepressants and mood stabilisers to help depressed youth, in the book Anatomy of an Epidemic, (Whitaker, 2010) says that these drugs ‘cause metabolic dysfunction, hormonal abnormalities, diabetes, obesity, emotional blunting, cognitive decline and early death.’ This is proof of the most tragic sort that the drug-based paradigm of care is doing a great deal more harm than good. The medicating of children and youth became commonplace only a short time ago, and already it has put millions onto a path of a drug-induced lifelong illness.

In terms of numbers, the number of ‘seriously mentally ill’ school-going American children rose from 16,200 in 1987 to 561,569 twenty years later. What is even more worrying is that pre-school children are now being diagnosed with mental illness and duly medicated and the numbers have tripled between the years 2000 and 2007.

Children who can become undoubtedly severely distressed need for health-care professionals to emphasise the importance of environment and the importance of emotional relationships to a child’s wellbeing. Children who are distressed need to be assigned a ‘mentor’ and their parents and teachers need help and support on how best to be with themselves and with children. When young people require residential care they need to be helped without psychiatric drugs. One therapist put it very well: “When kids are off the drugs, their personalities come back. They are people again.” The approach to children needs to be not ‘what’s wrong with the child’ but ‘what has happened to him or her.’ The story of the child needs to be the basis for intervention (rather than a checklist of symptoms) and interventions need to emerge from that story. Inevitably, when we gather details of the child’s life, then tales of emotional or sexual or physical or intellectual violations or neglect across all these dimensions are uncovered – there is no need for a biochemical explanation. A child cannot develop maturely without a warm and enduring connection to another human being and that connection cannot be made if the child is embalmed with drugs.

Dr. Tony Humphreys, Clinical psychologist, author and National and International Speaker. His book with co-author Dr. Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship is relevant to this week’s column.