By Dr. Mercola
Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can be devastating to adolescents, who are already going through one of the most emotionally turbulent life stages.
It's understandable why well-meaning parents would turn to prescription medications in an attempt to give their child some relief, especially since such drugs are heavily promoted and often used as a first-line treatment by psychiatrists and other doctors.
However, many are not aware, nor do their doctors tell them, that such drugs often do not work, particularly in children and teens. Worse yet, youth who take antidepressant medications may be at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
13 of 14 Antidepressants Tested Did Not Relieve Depressive Symptoms
Oxford University researchers analyzed results of 34 clinical trials that involved more than 5,000 children with depression (aged from 9 to 18 years).1 The children took 1 of 14 antidepressants for an average period of eight weeks.
The majority of them (13) did not work to relieve the symptoms of depression, and the one that did — fluoxetine (Prozac) — has previously been linked to severe homicidal akathisia.
And for the record, previous research has found the benefit of antidepressants including Prozac "may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms."2
Akathisia is a condition of motor restlessness, marked by anxiety, agitation, jitteriness (or the sensation of "jumping out of one's skin") and the inability to sit quietly or sleep.
The akathisia issue first came into public view shortly after Prozac entered the marketplace in the mid-1980s, when reports of murder and suicide among patients taking Prozac were publicized by the media.
Since then, there have been thousands of reports of violent behavior by individuals taking antidepressant drugs.
In addition, the featured study found the antidepressant venlafaxine (brand name Effexor) increased the risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts in the youth compared to placebo and five other antidepressants. The researchers concluded:3
"When considering the risk-benefit profile of antidepressants in the acute treatment of major depressive disorder, these drugs do not seem to offer a clear advantage for children and adolescents."
'Disturbing Implications for Clinical Practice'
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Jon Jureidini, an Australian child psychiatrist at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, noted that the study has "disturbing implications for clinical practice."4
Such medications should be prescribed only "if the discounted benefit outweighs the boosted harm," he stated, continuing, "For antidepressants in adolescents, this equation will rarely favor prescribing; in younger children, almost never."5
Antidepressants' link to suicidal tendencies is not new. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a black-box warning on antidepressants indicating they were associated with an increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in young people.
In 2007, the FDA directed manufacturers to update the warning to include increased risks of suicidal thinking and behavior, known as suicidality, in young adults ages 18 to 24 during initial treatment (generally the first one to two months).6
Research published in Pharmacogenomics and Personalized Medicine even revealed that a genetic mutation in the CYP450 gene family may cause a metabolic disturbance resulting in uncontrollable violent impulses and behaviors, including suicide, in some individuals taking these drugs.7
For about two years following the FDA's initial 2004 warning, substantial reductions in antidepressant use were observed among youth, but it was unknown whether those reductions had continued.
Antidepressant Prescriptions Among Youth Surged in Recent Years
Unfortunately, research published in European Neuropsychopharmacology showed that not only did antidepressant use continue after the FDA warnings, but it also markedly increased.8
The study revealed significant increases in antidepressant prescriptions to youth in five Western countries included in the study. In Denmark, for instance, there was a 60 percent increase in youth antidepressant prescriptions from 2005 to 2012.
The rate increased 54 percent in the U.K., 49 percent in Germany, 26 percent in the U.S. and 17 percent in the Netherlands during the same period.9
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) clinical guidelines state antidepressants should not be offered as a first-line treatment for symptoms of mild depression in children.
And even when they're prescribed for more serious cases, it's supposed to be along with psychological therapy. Unfortunately, this doesn't appear to be what's happening in clinical practice.
Disturbing Stories of Anxiety Drug Side Effects
Use of benzodiazepines, or "benzos," which are often prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, is also on the rise.10 Prescriptions for such drugs, which include brand names Valium, Ativan and Xanax, tripled from 1996 to 2013.
Benzodiazepines exert a calming effect by boosting the action of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the same way that opioids (heroin) and cannabinoids (cannabis) do. This in turn activates the gratification hormone, dopamine, in your brain.
This makes anxiety drugs highly addictive, and symptoms that may occur with benzodiazepine withdrawal include:11
✓ Perceptual distortions, sense of movement
✓ Depersonalization, derealization
✓ Hallucinations (visual, auditory)
✓ Distortion of body image
✓ Tingling, numbness and altered sensation
✓ Formication (skin crawling)
✓ Sensory hypersensitivity (light, sound, taste and smell)
✓ Muscle twitches, jerks
✓ Psychotic symptoms
✓ Confusion, delirium
In the video above, people across the globe shared their stories about how benzodiazepine drugs, taken as prescribed, led to serious side effects and harm.
If you're wondering about people's experiences with antidepressants, at SSRIStories.org you can browse through a collection of more than 6,000 stories in which prescription drugs, primarily SSRIs, were potentially linked to serious side effects including violent behavior.
Categories include murder-suicide, postpartum reactions, road rage, school and other mass shootings, workplace violence and more, echoing the reasons why use of such drugs must not be taken lightly.
Diagnosis of Mental Illness in Youth Is Not an Exact Science
If your child is struggling emotionally or mentally, it can be difficult to determine whether it is due to a true illness, environmental factors or a combination. Even diagnosis by psychiatrists is far from an exact science.
Behavioral problems in children (and also many mental challenges in adults) — including what might appear to be serious mental disorders — are frequently related to improper diet, emotional upset and exposure to toxins.
If possible, these underlying issues should be resolved before resorting to suppressing symptoms with potentially dangerous medications. Remember, research suggests drugs such as antidepressants do little, if anything, to help and may increase your child's risk of suicide.
Further, psychotropic agents can influence a child's brain development, and chronic drug exposure during sensitive periods can produce alterations to a child's nervous system that have unpredictable and potentially harmful effects.
What happens to children when they are medicated at a very young age during key formative years? Do they grow up never knowing who they really are? What passions might they have developed were it not for the drug's influence? These are questions that remain unanswered.
Try This Before Mind-Altering Drugs for Depression or Anxiety
If you or your child are experiencing severe depression or anxiety please seek help from a professional. For milder cases, and in addition to professional treatment for severe cases, the place to start is to return balance — to your body and your life. If you're currently taking antidepressants or anxiety medications and wish to stop, you should wean off them gradually under the care of a knowledgeable health care provider.
Abrupt withdrawal from these drugs can lead to severe psychiatric or physical problems. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by applying lifestyle modifications before trying medication, especially in children with mild symptoms. You may be surprised by how much such changes lessen symptoms naturally.
In addition to the creation of new neurons, including those that release the calming neurotransmitter GABA, exercise boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress.
Many avid exercisers also feel a sense of euphoria after a workout, sometimes known as the "runner's high." It can be quite addictive, in a good way, once you experience just how good it feels to get your heart rate up and your body moving.
The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)
EFT can be very effective by helping you to actually reprogram your body's reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. This includes both real and imagined stressors, which can be significant sources of anxiety.
EFT is particularly powerful for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat.12 EFT has also been shown to lower cortisol levels, which are elevated when you're stressed or anxious.13
In the following video, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman discusses EFT for depression relief. Please keep in mind that while anyone can learn to do EFT at home, self-treatment for serious issues like persistent anxiety or depression is dangerous and NOT recommended, and you should consult with an EFT professional to get the relief you need.
Optimize Your Gut Flora
Your gut and brain work in tandem, each influencing the other. This is why your intestinal health can have such a profound influence on your mental health and vice versa. It's also the reason why your diet is so closely linked to your mental health.
Prior research has shown that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior.14 The probiotic known as Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 has also been shown to normalize anxiety-like behavior in mice with infectious colitis.15
So optimizing your gut flora with beneficial bacteria is a highly useful strategy. This is done by eliminating sugars and processed foods and eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables, avoiding processed vegetable oils and eating healthy fats. Additionally, eating plenty of fermented vegetables or taking a high-potency probiotic would be useful to reestablish a healthy gut flora.
Your diet should include a high-quality source of animal-based omega-3 fats like krill oil. The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA play an important role in your emotional well-being, and research has shown a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety among med students taking omega-3s.16
Dr. Andrew L. Stoll, a psychiatrist and director of the Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at Harvard University, was one of the early leaders in compiling the evidence supporting the use of animal based omega-3 fats for the treatment of depression. He wrote an excellent book that details his experience in this area called "The Omega-3 Connection."
Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through regular sun exposure. Vitamin D is very important for your mood. In one study, people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were found to be 11 times more prone to depression than those who had normal levels.17
The best way to get vitamin D is through sun exposure and, to a lesser degree, foods such as salmon and tuna, fish liver oils and eggs. A vitamin D3 supplement can also be used, but you'll need to monitor your levels regularly. To reap maximum benefit, you need a vitamin D level of at least 40 to 60 ng/ml.
Lower Your Intake of Sugar and Processed Foods
In addition to being high in sugar and grains, processed foods also contain a variety of additives that can affect your brain function and mental state, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and artificial sweeteners. There's a great book on this subject, "Sugar Blues," written by the late American activist, writer and musician, William Dufty, that delves into the topic of sugar and mental health in great detail.
Get adequate amounts of sleep. You can have the best diet and exercise program possible, but if you aren't sleeping well you can easily become depressed. Sleep and depression are so intimately linked that a sleep disorder is actually part of the definition of the symptom complex that gives the label depression.
Anxiety drugs are also often prescribed for sleep troubles. I suggest first reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep. Small adjustments to your daily routine and sleeping area can go a long way to ensure uninterrupted, restful sleep (which may further help with anxiety symptoms, as well).