The sharp increase in the uptake of medication for children is worrying Dr Chris van Tulleken in his recent series, ‘The Doctor who gave up Drugs’ (shown on BBC1 in June 2018). He worked out that we are giving British kids three times more medication than we were 40 years ago. This includes a shocking rise in teenagers taking anti-depressants; and a sharp increase in hyperactive kids being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As a new dad, van Tulleken questions the medicalisation of behaviour and searches for drug free alternatives which might be just as effective.
Half of all mental health problems emerge before the age of 14
According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people. This can present itself through depression, self-harm, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and ADHD. ‘Alarmingly, 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.’ The ‘Better Mental Health’ report published in August 2017 by Public Health England, tells us that ‘half of all mental health problems emerge before the age of 14 and three quarters by age 25.’ So, it appears that some children do need medication but van Tulleken wonders whether ALL of them do.
Do ‘adult’ drugs work for children?
Among other things, he investigates the research around the efficacy of anti-depressants for teenagers. He finds that most of the research studies use adult samples (who have very different brains to those of teenagers) and he finds that very little research has been done on the effect of anti-depressants on teenagers themselves. In fact, the raw data that does exist tells him that ‘the drugs don’t work’. This prompts his question, ‘are we giving [our young people] pills that are not only ineffective but could be dangerous?’ He quickly follows this by stressing; it is dangerous to stop any prescribed medication, without first consulting a GP.
Positive Mental Health – three points
I take home three pointers when it comes to promoting positive mental health in my children:
- Good parenting skills. Positive mental health and wellbeing, and building resilience in my children will include good parenting skills (loving, nurturing discipline and good communication/problem solving skills), healthy habits, a good school environment; and plenty of time outdoors with friends. Focussing on building and sustaining warm, open relationships with my children will help them tell me if they are troubled. Listening and taking their feelings seriously, is essential if I am going to be able to spot mental health distress ‘at a sufficiently early age’.
- Professional help, as required. The involvement of professional help is important, if I find my child’s life (and/or our family life) is disrupted by their distress, or if they are repeatedly behaving in a way that I wouldn’t expect for their age.
- Being curious about medication and its alternatives. Remaining curious, questioning diagnosis and suggested treatments, reading the small print (especially the side effects) and asking about medications that have been designated SAFE FOR CHILDREN (rather than adults) is important. Seeking alternative opinions and investigating alternatives to medication, if I have any concerns about the medication, is essential. This might include:
- Trying a change of habits (a better sleep routine), diet (less sugar) or exercise (use the car less).
- Getting them out in nature – the 2016 report from Natural England shows that ‘taking part in nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental ill-health and can contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety, stress, and depression’. With three-quarters of UK children spending less time outdoors than prison inmates, this is something worth considering.
- There are talking therapies, where children can identify what is troubling them and find different ways to handle those situations better.
- Mindfulness meditation, which is used in many schools to decrease stress in children, appears to be particularly helpful for those with ADHD. In one study, 78% of participants who practiced mindful awareness reported a reduction in their ADHD symptoms.
Andrea Rippon is a Certified Parent Educator and a mum of two teenagers. www.parentingclass.co.uk She helps parents build strong, long-term relationships with their children (toddlers to teenagers) by using evidence-based communication skills. Her next Open Programme starts in September, 2018. She can also offer Parent Coaching by Skype or in person. This blog was previously published in the Family Section of the EDP on 22 June, 2018. If you’ve got a question for her, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org