Challenging the apparent saddening relentless rise of depression in our young people in Britain today
Dave Traxson EP
January 16, 2018
Most surveys of young peoples’ psychological wellbeing and mental health over the last two decades show a sharp rise in many indicators of depression along with heightened levels of social isolation or social anxiety for 11 to 18 year olds and most practicing child psychologists agree that is a definite problem but do not always agree with medics over the reasons. It is not possible, we believe, for all of this increased prevalence to be accounted for by an epidemic of a biologically based condition. As we know from the ongoing ‘Nature - Nurture Debate’ which has raged for decades there is very rarely a simplistic answer or cause for many issues but especially a young person’s state of mind at a crucial stage of development. Multi-causal explanations and more holistic psychological formulations are increasingly favoured being much more likely to explain the situation better.
There are many drivers in society, after at a period of long-term politically imposed Austerity, for all or most young people which may have impacted on their state of mind, stress levels and the likelihood of harm to their overall mental health and wellbeing. Some of these will be the pressures for academic success to ensure employment which has been a huge issue for a decade; their need to conform to stereotypes of gender, beauty, and their chosen subculture; the increase in bullying behaviour with the advent of cyber-bullying which aggressively invades their private world and bedrooms; and the western obsession with wealth, the burgeoning celebrity culture and the perceived need by young people for the latest must have accessories from phones and clothes to cars and expensive holidays. Any perception of a shortfall on any of these can be a major factor in the young person’s deteriorating feelings of belonging, self-worth or having mental health difficulties. Then there are other significant factors like loss and bereavement which are bound to have a negative impact but with the right support a young person will cope better with it and certainly the young person is not mentally ill for feeling the way they naturally do in such traumatic circumstances.
Another important protective factor is that some young people are much more resilient and can bounce back from adversity better, some having better support groups or circle of friends around them which can be a major protective factor for mental health. Likewise some young people will find better outlets for their frustration with the world such as using physical activity which is proven to be very effective at inoculating them from depression as shown in recent articles in medical journals like the Lancet.
This complex pattern of factors is totally unique and personal to each individual young person and differing formulations will lead to unique responses in the individuals we are concerned about. One thing that is certain to Educational Psychologists is that there will be no ‘quick fix’ either individually or collectively for these woes. Indeed people thinking that anti-depressant medication is the answer are also left floundering in a sea of misinformation and poor quality research findings where successful outcomes have been systematically ‘cherry picked’ to boost the sales of the drug company’s profitable products. There is also the fact, as illustrated by the ‘black box warnings’ on drugs in the States issued by the Federal Drug Agency that initially some SSRI anti-depressants can double the risk in the short term period, of two months, of suicidal thinking and action. This is because they raise the young person’s physical energy level before they raise their low mental mood level thus explaining why they are being implicated in some of the mass shootings we are witnessing where recent changes in drug treatment may have been an important factor such as in the infamous Columbine School incident where the young men concerned obtained their weapons for their dark deeds readily in the community where they lived. In young men in Britain between 18 - 25 today suicide is sadly the highest cause of death for that age group which is a national tragedy alerting us to complex causation of the problem.
Many mental health professionals are now actively questioning the previous generations collective wisdom of there being a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain. Senior researchers such as the Director Thomas Insell of the highly respected National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S., the largest mental health research organisation in the world, has come out and said that despite actively seeking it for forty years no concrete evidence of the biomarkers of any mental health disorders have been found, which is a major dent in the credibility of this suggestion. Many of these professionals are equally concerned about the softening and wideneing of published criteria for such conditions with manuals like DSM5 published by the American Psychiatric Association. This is a very lucrative publication both for the publisher and indirectly for 'BigPharma' with the chance for an increased market expansion opportunity amongst the young and other vulnerable groupings in society.This is very beneficial to their long term 'Business Planning' and helps explain why the pharmaceutical industry internationally has for the first time in 2015 exceeded the earnings of the Arms Industry globally. So pressure from the drug producers and their marketing departments is clearly a major factor in the current picture for this condition. It may also be that diagnostic tools are convincing practitioners and indirectly the public that low mood is treatable by its pathologisation. Professor Parker from the University of New South Wales, Australia in a recent British Medical Journal 'head to head debate' suggested that changes in how depression is diagnosed has meant that too many people are now be considered to have a depressive disorder. To support this he refers to his group’s findings that in a group of 242 teachers, 79% met criteria for some level of depression. He argues that, as a result, people who are experiencing a normal feeling of low mood rather than true illness may receive treatment unnecessarily.
So the depressing conclusion is that there are few certainties in the field of depression and how it develops at times of crisis like now. All we know is that there are many contributory factors for each human being and that humanistic or naturalistic interventions have the chance of being equally as successful as bottles of pills. What many professionals believe is we need to 'Drop the D' for mental health disorders as in Depressive Disorder and rather than rely to heavily on 'medical model' notions that we should better describe the complex needs of an individual young person in a more effective and useful way to trigger a range of supportive interventions
To end with a quote from Johann Harri in his new book published on January 11th, "If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet these needs for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.”
Many Child and Educational Psychologists meeting at their annual British Psychological Society (DECP) Conference in Brighton in early January this year would have agreed with these timely conclusions and are working to raise the public's awareness of the complexities of mental health work and of supporting the psychological wellbeing of our young people with solution focussed and creative co-constructed interventions.