Should My Teen Take Antidepressants?
Depression is a legitimate health concern. A diagnosable depressive disorder can leave your teen feeling hopeless, lethargic, antisocial and unwilling to get out of bed — let alone put forth effort in school, work or family. If you believe your teen is exhibiting signs of depression, meet with a doctor and have their mental health evaluated. But be certain that you trust the physician — and do a great deal of research on your own — before deciding if your son or daughter should begin taking antidepressants.
In one study, published in the journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, nearly two-thirds of a patients diagnosed with depression did not meet the actual criteria for a major depressive episode as defined by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Many of these patients received a “false positive” diagnosis, and may have been prescribed antidepressant medications without actually needing them.
If your teen is indeed diagnosed with depression, and you choose to get them started on antidepressants, it’s crucial to monitor their progress every day. At the first sign of negative side effects, schedule a doctor’s visit to have them reassessed. The doctor may decide to change their dosage or give them a different medication entirely. If your teen continues taking medications with zero effect, you should consider discontinuing their prescription.
In addition to depression, there are several other mental health issues that may be addressed (at least partially) by antidepressants. Teens with eating disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD may benefit from certain antidepressants. In any case, don’t allow your teen to start taking prescription medication without heavily researching their symptoms and asking the doctor any questions you and your teen may have.
While not as headline-grabbing as narcotic painkillers, antidepressants are among the most common prescription drugs used by teens. In 2007 alone, more than 113,000 antidepressant prescriptions were filled for kids younger than 16 in the U.S.
What Is SSRI?
There are several different classes of antidepressants, the most common of which are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs). These medications are believed to naturally increase the regular levels of serotonin — a chemical associated with happiness — in the brain of a user.
A list of popular SSRI antidepressants include:
What are Antidepressants Used For?
Between 2005 and 2008, 11% of people in the U.S. took antidepressants. Among these users, 14% took more than one antidepressant at a time. Doctors prescribe antidepressants approved for teenagers when there is evidence of major depressive disorder — a serious mental health problem affecting more than 3% of kids aged 13–17. They can also be prescribed for people with select symptoms of depression, of which there are 15 million in the U.S alone.
Antidepressant use becomes troubling when you look closer at the numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 8% of antidepressant users aged 12 and older have no current depressive symptoms, and less than one-third of current users taking a single antidepressant have seen a mental health professional in the past year.
Teens and Depression
Antidepressant use increased by 400% between 1988–1994 and 2005–2008, across all patients aged 12 and older. It’s possible that doctors have become more lenient with handing out prescriptions, but studies show that depression is indeed more common, and developing in much younger patients than in the past.
“We’re getting clear evidence that the onset of depression is happening earlier and earlier,” says Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane. Based on calls to her charity, Wallace posits that the rate of depression in kids under 14 doubled between 2007 to 2010.
“In previous generations, people would be overwhelmed by depression in their 20s. Now the peak age for onset is 13-15.”
Abuse of Antidepressants
Abuse and misuse of antidepressants does happen, albeit at a limited rate compared to prescription stimulants and painkillers. Most cases of antidepressant abuse occur in teens with a dual diagnosis, which is when a substance abuse problem co-occurs with a simultaneous mental health disorder (e.g. certain mood disorders, anxiety disorder, etc.).
Teens often go to great lengths to experience the euphoria of an antidepressant high. In some extreme cases, teens may abuse antidepressants by crushing them up and snorting them or injecting them with a needle. A popular escape for teens is a bupropion high — bupropion is among the most commonly prescribed antidepressants in the U.S., marketed under names like Wellbutrin and Zyban. Abusing SSRI, bupropion and other antidepressants often result in confusion, seizures and psychosis-like symptoms, in addition to overdoses that can be fatal.
Are Antidepressants Safe?
As a parent, it’s important to note: for nearly every teen that benefits from antidepressants, another teen feels no effect at all — and potentially has an adverse reaction.
“I was prescribed antidepressants. Within a week I was feeling a whole lot worse,” says Amy, who began taking the drugs at 13 after becoming depressed and starting to harm herself. “I told the psychiatrist, who promptly doubled my dosage. I soon felt twice as bad again; a couple of weeks later, I was admitted to the young people’s ward of my local mental hospital and taken off my medication.”
On top of a potential undesirable response, such as the one Amy experienced, teens who start taking antidepressants often develop a dependency that can last years. More than 60% of users in the U.S. have taken their antidepressants for 2 years or longer, and 14% are on the medication for 10 years or more. In these cases, the issue becomes much larger than just antidepressant dosages — addiction to pills could be at play.
Side Effects of Antidepressants
Prolonged use of antidepressants can not only cause a chemical imbalance — along with some form of addiction — but can leave the body vulnerable to other physical and psychological risks.
Short-term effects of antidepressants can include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite
Long-term effects of antidepressants can include:
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Muscle weakness and spasms
- Decreased sex drive
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Blurred vision
According to one study, 14% of teens who take antidepressants become aggressive or even violent. Overdoses and death are also possible with non-recommended or prolonged antidepressant use. In 2003, nearly 56,000 overdoses in the U.S. resulted from SSRI antidepressants, with more than 100 being fatal. Tricyclic antidepressants (or TCAs), the oldest class of these medications, have the highest rate of hospitalization and fatalities.
Antidepressants and Suicide
During this surge in the 2000s, many experts spoke out about the effectiveness and consequences of antidepressant use. Some saw a link between these drugs and teen suicide, believing that if teens took antidepressants, they were more likely to hurt themselves — or even die from suicide. In 2003, the FDA warned that popular antidepressants could increase the risk of adolescent self-harm, suicidal thinking or suicide attempts. In 2004, they called for “black box” warnings on antidepressants — the strongest warning labels required by the FDA, associated with life-threatening risks.
The warnings led to mixed results. In the years following these changes, antidepressant use among adolescents fell by 31% — but suicide attempts increased by a whopping 22%.
It’s impossible to say that these two numbers are directly related. But in the wake of these findings, many proponents for antidepressants have come to their defense. Results vary from case to case, as with many mental health problems and their prescribed solutions. But used properly in the right situations, doctors believe antidepressants can help children who suffer from depressive disorders.
“A reliable finding is that antidepressants work for chronic and recurrent mild depression, the condition called dysthymia,” writes Peter Kramer, author of the book Listening to Prozac. “More than half of patients on medicine get better, compared to less than a third taking a placebo. Similarly, even the analyses that doubt the usefulness of antidepressants find that they help with severe depression.”
Does My Child Need Rehab?
If you notice signs that your teen may be abusing prescription drugs like antidepressants, reach out to a professional who can assess your child’s situation. Though addiction does not always accompany substance abuse, it certainly begins there. In the case of infrequent substance use, your teen may simply need regular counseling in order to eliminate that harmful behavior. In the case of addiction, rehab will be necessary. Only a qualified treatment professional can weigh your child’s situation and determine their needs.
It’s best to get professional guidance when seeking treatment options for your teenager. Those in the treatment field usually have a comprehensive knowledge of substance abuse programs, and a sound understanding of which programs work best in specific situations. Our qualified treatment professionals at TeenRehabCenter.org stand ready to help you in any way. Call us today for a free discussion about your child’s situation. There are no strings attached. Your family can find a way to get through this together. We can help.
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