Now, Religion in the News—a report and comment on religious trends and events being covered by the media. This week’s item focuses on psychology and is excerpted from Insight magazine: “The numbers are alarming. The National Institute of Mental Health estimated that as many as 1.5 million children and adolescents—that’s 2.5 percent of all Americans under age 18—are seriously depressed. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry puts the number of significantly depressed children and adolescents at 3.4 million. More startling still, the number of children ages 5 and younger taking the most commonly prescribed antidepressants increased from 8,000 to 40,000 in one year, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical research firm in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. During that same 12-month period from 1996-1997, the total number of youngsters 17 and younger who were prescribed Prozac or its primary competitors, Zoloft and Paxil, rose by more than 120,000 to 792,000.
“’It’s no longer rare for doctors to prescribe those drugs for children as young as four,’ says Donald L. Rosenblitt, medical director of the Lucy Daniels Center for early childhood, a therapeutic nursery in Carey, North Carolina. ‘They are doing it more and more. Probably more often than I’m comfortable with,’ Rosenblitt says. ‘There is no information yet on the long-term effects of these drugs on the developing brain,’ he adds. ‘The enormous weight of evidence so far is that antidepressants do not help childhood depression.’”
Tom: Wow! This is really a scary article, Martin and Deidre, don’t you agree?
Martin: Yeah. It is a frightening article, and what we see here is over the years we have gone to a medicalizing of problems of living. And the medicalization of these problems—there are biological problems in life, whether it has to do with the body or the brain, but what’s happened is the medicalization of these problems has spread prolifically, and as more and more and more subtle drugs (subtle drugs are those that don’t have as many side effects) have come along, it’s not only been a medicalization of our problems, but the use of drugs to deal with these problems that have been medicalized, and then it’s not only going to the general population, but it’s being pushed downward as young as possible. And these types of drugs are not even—in certain cases, the manufacturer of the drug admits that it should not be used for children; the tests haven’t been done on children, so therefore it’s not prescribed for children. But the doctors themselves have the ability to take the off-the-label, so to speak, and go ahead and prescribe it for almost anybody they want. So they’re prescribing it for younger and younger and younger children. And so what we’re doing is we’re drugging more prolifically than we ever have, younger children, and younger than we ever have. And so we’re medicalizing the problem; we’re proliferating it throughout the entire population; we’re pushing it downward to the youngest possible and most potentially affected by long-term results that we know nothing about.
Tom: Martin, now, some people who complain that we’re even addressing something like that…this…they would say, “Well, you guys are really way out of your field here. This is a scientific, medical problem. This has to do with brain chemistry and its science, which you can’t speak to.” But, Martin, isn’t it true that the diagnosis of this depression comes through an interview, not through any kind of medical testing?
Martin: Yes, what happens is—I always give this example: If you give 100 patients to doctor, and purge from their records anything verbal that they said, and tell the doctor, “You can do any kind of biological examination of them, but you can’t talk to them. Now select those individuals that are bi-polar depression or just straight depression, or whatever, and the doctor will tell you right away, “I can’t. I have to talk to the patient in order to find out.”
And so, it’s a matter that the doctors have to receive verbal information about the state that the person’s in rather than biological markers as to what the state is of the person.
Tom: So, let’s say a three-year-old or a four-year-old, a child sits in the corner sucking this thumb—he doesn’t want any part of what his mom or dad tell him to do—this could be a candidate for Prozac, or something like that, correct?
Deidre: Yes, and it doesn’t take much of the behavior of a child being unhappy for parents to become alarmed. And we kind of live in a world now where if people are unhappy or sad, they are going to be considered…well, needing some kind of medical help, psychological help. But you know, there are a lot of things in our society that are different now, and it isn’t that psychology is going to help, and it isn’t that all of these brain chemicals are going to help, but when you think of the amount of time that children spend watching television, when you think of the amount of time that children are with their parents, you have a huge amount of time with television, and with more and more parents working, you have less and less hours of quiet, just simple, normal activities.
It used to be we used to play with and do things that would be boring to a child these days.
Tom: Right, because of the…well, basically, it’s passive viewing, but the things that they are viewing move along at such an incredible rate of activity—it’s a strange phenomena.
Deidre: Yes, and the things the children must be absorbing from the television, so much of it being not true, not really related to their own life, and then they apply that to their life, I think it would be better to turn off the television than to recommend any kind of drugs.
Martin: Yeah, back to your question about “Can we make comments about these bio-chemical things if that’s not our field?” people can read the results of research, and I think most people know that the doctor’s main line of information is actually the pharmaceutical company representative, not something he’s researched himself. And so they’re taking the word of the pharmaceutical rep based upon the studies the pharmaceuticals have done, and they’re huge corporations with lots of money. And what’s happening is we’re, again drugging too many at too young an age, and it’s a consequence that we may have to reap in the future, because unfortunately, of the long-term effects of these drugs that we know very little about.