The headline grabbed my attention immediately. “Why Screening Teens for Mental Illness is a Terrible Idea” made me curious and angry both at the same time. As a mom of a young adult with bipolar disorder and a teenager who has depressive disorder, the subject of mental illness awareness is something I feel very strongly about. The title of this blog post would lead one to believe that the author feels that mental illness amongst teenagers is not a problem. Undiagnosed depression in teenagers often results in suicide. Screening is important.
The issue is not really about the screening process as it is about the rising trend in prescribing powerful and potentially harmful psychiatric medications to our children and teenagers.
According to journalist Robert Whitaker, who wrote in his book Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (Crown,2010), several decades ago children were rarely diagnosed with mental illness. Today more than 10 percent of all American children suffer from mental illnesses. What is wrong with our children? Is there really anything wrong or is the increase in diagnosis of mental illnesses in children and teenagers due to the ties that pharmaceutical companies have to the screening programs used in many schools?
One program that the author speaks about is called TeenScreen, which is used in 43 states. Although the idea of screening teens is good, it is suspicious that this program has ties to the pharmaceutical industry. The program itself was designed by a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia who has served as a paid consultant for GlaxoSmithKline and other manufacturers of psychiatric drugs. Even NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) who lobbies for improved care for mental illness has close ties to the pharmaceutical industry. NAMI receives about three quarters of its donations from drug companies.
Although mental illness in children and teens is real, it may have become too commonplace for doctors to medicate instead of trying other treatments first. In some children and teens therapy could be all that is needed but often many psychiatrists prescribe medication. There have not been enough long-term studies to accurately predict what kind of effects these adult psychiatric medications have on growing children. The danger is truly unknown even though the medications get FDA approval. The side effects of many of these drugs are serious. Often taking these drugs can cause worsening of symptoms. When a child or teen is considered at risk because of their family medical history, often it is seen as a no-brainer to some psychiatrists. The prescription pad comes out and the child or teen is put on a psychiatric medication. The option of alternative therapy such as talk therapy or even evaluating the child’s diet is not even discussed. Although family history is important when a doctor is trying to properly diagnose a patient, other medical conditions should also be explored before medications should be prescribed. There are the extreme cases where medication is a necessity but no pill alone is going to cure a mental illness. Psychiatric medications are made to help make symptoms more manageable but they should be used along with therapy, behavior modification and stress-reduction techniques.
As a parent I wish that my older daughter would have been screened as a teenager. Her bipolar disorder was only diagnosed after she developed a substance abuse problem. This often happens when mental illness is not diagnosed. On the other hand, because my older daughter was diagnosed bipolar, when my youngest child developed severe anxiety and depression symptoms, all the doctor needed to hear was our family history.
As a parent I had done my research and I tried therapy with my youngest daughter before trying medication. I also insisted upon blood work being done which revealed a Vitamin D deficiency which studies show can cause depressive symptoms. Therapy, exercise and better eating habits have helped my youngest child although she is taking an anti-depressant. We have changed psychiatrists often who were too eager to prescribe multiple medications for her symptoms. No one can guarantee that long-term usage of these psychiatric medications will not negatively affect my daughter. Although I believe that she does suffer from recurring depressive disorder, I do believe that learning coping skills and following a healthy lifestyle will help her overcome her symptoms. As she is moving into her mid-teens I see that her maturity level is helping her to control her symptoms.
Medication is not always necessary. We have become a nation who rushes to take a pill instead of looking for the real cause behind our feelings and symptoms. I still don’t feel that screening for mental illness in our teens is a bad idea. Many lives can be saved if teachers, educators and others are trained to recognize the danger signs. What is done when a child or teen is found to be suffering from a mental illness is where the changes should be. Profit may be behind why so many children and teenagers are growing up and entering adulthood taking psychiatric medications. Mismanagement of treating mental illness is to blame.