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Teens And Antidepressants: More Harm Than Good?

Teen depression isn't always best treated with antidepressants.
Teen depression isn't always best treated with antidepressants. Photo Credit: Contributed

With teen depression on the rise, medication may seem like the easiest and quickest way to treat struggling or suicidal teens. However, the results of these treatments have been mixed, and in some cases, ultimately cause more harm than good.

How Antidepressants Work

To some extent, depression and its effects on the brain are a mystery. However, the simplest explanation for how antidepressants work is that they impact the behavior of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are released to send messages between nerve cells that trigger serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Most prescribed antidepressants prevent neurotransmitters from being absorbed back into the nerve cells in the brain, allowing the circuits in the brain that regulate mood to stay stronger.

How Effective Are Antidepressants?

Do antidepressants work? There is evidence on both sides of the argument.

In a 2008 study led by Irving Kirsch of Harvard Medical School, researchers looked at 35 different antidepressant drug trials submitted to the FDA. They found that the effect of these antidepressants was not much greater than the effect of a placebo drug -- in other words, the non-medicated pills were 82 percent as effective as antidepressants.

“Analyses of the published data and the unpublished data that were hidden by the drug companies reveal that most (if not all) of the benefits are due to the placebo effect,” said Kirsch.

Although the research on this topic is contradictory, it reveals how much is unknown about the effectiveness of depression medication for children.

Side Effects of Antidepressants

Even when antidepressants seem to relieve symptoms of depression, they can have many undesirable side effects. Additionally, these side effects can be dangerous and even life threatening. They can include:

  • Increases in suicidal thoughts among children and young adults
  • Long-term weight gain
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and diarrhea
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Increased risk of stroke and death among older adults
  • Greater risk of relapse after recovery

When it comes to teenagers and antidepressants, parents must look at the long-term health effects of using prescription medication.

Alternatives to Antidepressants

Medication is not the only approach for addressing teen depression. In fact, studies show that clinical and holistic methods for decreasing teen anxiety and depression can be equally or more effective than prescription medication.

Clinical treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy are proven to be effective in treating depression in adolescents. Exercise is also proven to be effective; in one study, 30 minutes of exercise three times per week was as effective as drugs for depression. Dietary changes and mindfulness practices are also proven to help reduce depression and anxiety in teenagers and adults.

Ultimately, teenagers and antidepressants may not be a healthy mix. That's why before ever filling a prescription, parents should explore the full range of treatment options available to their child.

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