Today's blog is on childen… specifically the so-called rise of mental illness among children and young people. What appears to be on the rise is an ideology.
The first thing to understand is that the prescribing of psychiatric drugs to children is fairly recent. Prior to 1980, very few young people were medicated for mental conditions.
As Whitaker’s book makes clear, it’s all about the story. In fact, no research has ever shown a chemical imbalance in the brain to be the cause of depression or schizophrenia. Research does show that long-term use of psychotropic drugs creates a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be permanent, leading to permanent dependence and disability. Okay.. but the story is this: "Wow! Good thing you’re on meds, because look how ill you get when you try to get off them! That just PROVES what a terrible imbalance you had before you were diagnosed." I suppose alcoholics and heroine addicts could try to spin their withdrawals the same way…
Turns out, depression and mania have always been common among children. At least, that's the story.
And, here, let me put in a word for my own reasoning capacities. I think there are many and excellent reasons for a decline in the mental health of children. For starts: nutrition. There’s a B-vitamin deficiency in the global food supply (result of depleted soil). Kids eat crap. We all know that. It’s pushed on them. And low-income families have little choice but to load up on high-carb, low-nutrient foods. If we treated our cars the way we treat our bodies, the engines would have seized up long ago.
Then there is what some have begun to call Nature Deficiency Syndrome. It’s a pretty recent thing that a child can spend months, even years at a time in man-made environments without a day in nature. I think this has a severe impact on perspective, perceptions of reality, being right-sized, etc. I think that being in nature has many effects on us that are still poorly understood.
And then there is the electronic media thing… staring at screens: TV, DVD’s, WII sports, Nintendo games, texting. We are learning reality from unreality. Not to mention that radiation thing.
Are children more restless, depressed, aggressive? I wouldn’t doubt it. Is it about chemical imbalance in the brain? Until there is one shred of research to support that theory, I’m going to go with “no.” Is it about how far we have removed ourselves from being an animal species among animal species? Well, those folks who are actually creating environments to bring us back to that are getting good results.
But let’s get back to “the story.” Children have been massively mentally ill all along… who knew?
Let’s look at Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). At the turn of the century, a doctor did identify hospitalized children with “violent outbursts… destructiveness, and a lack of responsiveness to punishment.” This was found to be associated with known brain injuries (meningitis, brain tumors, etc.) It was a rare condition.
What happened? Suddenly there were children in every classroom with this formerly rare, brain-disease side effect. Who was diagnosing? Mostly teachers, not doctors. A study in 2009 showed that “only a minority of children with this disorder exhibit symptoms during a physician visit.” By 2007, one out of twenty-three children (4-17 years old) were being medicated for ADHD. It’s called a brain disease, but, again, no research supports this finding. The neuroanatomy appears to be normal. The “chemical imbalance” thing is a drug-marketing claim, not science. Who needs facts when the story is so good?
Do the drugs “work?” Well, the children definitely become subdued, or, in clinical terms, there is a “reduction in movement and engagement with others.” In teacher language that would mean “stops fidgeting and talking to students during class.” In research language, other phrases have been used: “emotionally flat,” “reduced curiosity about the environment,” “socially withdrawn,” “little or no initiative,” “devoid of humor.”
Ritalin helps with focus on routine, repetitive tasks, but it does not lend itself to creative problem solving or divergent thinking—both of which are necessary for critical thinking. Ritalin appears to be taking on a sinister tinge: The improvement is in classroom manageability, not academic performance.
And the long term? Seems to be a growth suppressant (shorter, less weight). Symptoms worsen over time. Greater overall functional impairment. Oh, gosh… Okay (deep breath): drowsiness, appetite loss, lethargy, facial and vocal tics, insomnia, headaches, abdominal pain, motor abnormalities, skin problems, liver disorders, sudden cardiac death, depression, apathy, anxiety, irritability, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mania, paranoia, hallucination… reduced ability to experience pleasure. Yeah. Ritalin.
Moving on. By 2002, one in forty children were on anti-depressants. In 2004, the number of children killing themselves on these drugs was so alarming, the FDA started requiring the drug companies to include a warning label that describes the "increased risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts and behavior in children and adolescents given antidepressant medications." A warning. The drugs are still available, still prescribed, and young people are still killing themselves. Read my earlier blog on the failure of antidepressants… Or, if you have a strong stomach, go to the SSRI stories website.
In 1960, researchers were unable to find any cases of manic-depressive syndrome in children. By the late 1960’s, Ritalin began to be prescribed. Some children taking Ritalin began to exhibit manic behavior. No surprise there. Any parent with a kid on Ritalin can tell you about the daily “crash.” The drug produces arousal followed by dysphoric symptoms. Daily. But this is the very cycle that doctors describe as bipolar! Every child on a stimulant is a bit bipolar, and the risk of moving on to a full diagnosis is ever-present. Voila! Pediatric bipolar disorder was “discovered.”
As antidepressants began to be prescribed, the numbers rose even higher. And here was the story: The antidepressants were not causing bipolar.. no, no, no! They were simply unmasking the bipolar illness that was already there! In fact, by 1995, studies showed that one quarter of children and adolescents diagnosed and medicated for depression would convert to bipolar within two-to-four years.
To sum up: 400,000 children have arrived at bipolar via the ADHD doorway, with at least another half-million on the way through the antidepressant doorway. This is an iatrogenic epidemic, people. Iatrogenic. Look it up. And how bad off are these kids? In 1987, there were about 16,000 psychiatrically disabled youth on SSI. Twenty years later? 560,000.
And what about really young kids? About ten years ago, doctors began to prescribe psychotropic drugs to toddlers. In those ten years, the number of children under the age of six who are on SSI has tripled.
Whitaker goes on to interview some of the children who are on these medications. The stories are heartbreaking and also infuriating. What is most upsetting is that the doctors who are attempting to explore other treatment modalities in lieu of medication are finding they can’t get funding, and their work is not being published.
The next blog will probably be the last… talking about these alternative methods for dealing with mental illness.