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What It's Like to Go on Antidepressants Before Puberty

A new study has found that most antidepressants don't work on teenagers.

by Yasmin Jeffery
Jun 10 2016, 12:00am

Art by Nick Scott

When I was in elementary school, my two best friends were diagnosed with depression and given psychiatric drugs. They were both eight years old. At the time, I was weirdly jealous; I felt like they got more treats than me and the teachers gave them special attention. At one stage, I even made my mom take me to the doctor's, just to check that I wasn't depressed too.

When psychiatric drugs first became widely available, it was incredibly rare for a child to be given antidepressants. But in the last 30 years, they have become more readily prescribed—alongside a wide range of other psychiatric drugs—to children and teenagers.

Major depressive disorders currently affect approximately 3 percent of children between the ages of six and 12, and 6 percent of teenagers from 13 to 18. Most of those cases aren't treated with pharmaceutical drugs, but according to researchers at China's Chongqing Medical University, the number of young people taking antidepressants for mental health problems is rising in both the UK and the US. In the UK alone, the percentage of people under the age of 19 taking antidepressants rose from 0.7 percent in 2005 to 1.1 percent in 2012.

New research, published in the Lancet, suggests that some of these drugs could be causing more harm than good. According to a new clinical trial on adolescents and antidepressants, most available drugs don't help with mental health problems such as depression, and may actually be unsafe. The trial found that of the 14 most popular antidepressants on the market, only Prozac worked better than a placebo in terms of relieving the symptoms of depression. Another of the 14, Venlafaxine, was associated with an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

Professor Penn Xie, a member of the team leading the research, told PA: "The balance of risks and benefits of antidepressants for the treatment of major depression does not seem to offer a clear advantage in children and teenagers, with probably only the exception of [Prozac]."

With this in mind, we spoke to a few people—now grown adults—about their childhood experiences with psychiatric drugs.

Cady, 20, student

VICE: Why were you prescribed meds as a kid?
Cady: I was diagnosed with PTSD and dissociative identity disorder when I was sixteen, and went into a hospital a couple of times because of suicide attempts and stuff. I was basically an in-patient from sixteen to eighteen. I was out in the world for like two months in that period of time.

How was that time for you?
It was good. A very safe environment, I guess, but you're obviously very restricted, and you don't feel like you're really living, because everyone just continues around you, but you're stuck in a place and you lose track of time.

How did you feel on the drugs that were prescribed to you?
When I was still a child, they prescribed me Prozac. It was actually OK, I guess. It took a long time to actually work, and I'm not even sure it did work, because a month later, I was still in hospital. When you're on Prozac, your emotions are very leveled-out; if you want to cry, you can't cry because it flattens you out a bit, so it suppresses emotions maybe a bit more than it should. I was also on antipsychotics to level out psychotic experiences. They were supposed to decrease my thoughts, which didn't really work for me as a kid either, and they made me really, really drowsy. The antidepressants made me want to sleep, but with the antipsychotics, I couldn't get out of bed. I felt like a zombie. Every spare moment I would get between the daily program at the hospital, I would be in bed.

That's quite a weird life for a child. Do you think that had a bad effect on you?
Yeah, because it made me enjoy things less. If I wanted to be excited about something, I couldn't be, because it wouldn't reach that level of excitement because I was brought crashing back down again.

How do you feel about the idea of giving kids the same sort of drugs you were on?
I'm still on antipsychotics and now they're OK, but when I was younger, I was really zombified, and that's not just me—that was everyone in the ward who was on them, so I wouldn't recommend it for younger people.

Bob, 33, a dvertising

What were you taking when you were at school?
I was on Prozac. I was put on it when I was eighteen because I was a wacky guy. I was also on something they don't even make any more called Largactil. There's a song by the band called Amebix called the same thing that's pretty good. Basically, I took too many drugs, and I went mental, and they put me on Prozac to stop me being so miserable, and Largactil to stop me from having these crazy thoughts. So that's what I was on to begin with.

You were really young when that happened. How bad were things that you needed those drugs?
Well, I was really fucking crazy, and I was doing crazy things, thinking crazy things. I had this irrational fear—it's quite hard to describe—but I took loads and loads of ecstasy and smoked loads of weed, and I think it was the beginning of schizophrenia. That's what they told me it was. That was drug-induced, basically.

What sort of stuff would you experience?
For example, I took loads and loads of drugs one weekend, and then on the way to college that morning I had this thought: Oh my God, what if I'll only be happy if I become like those cyber goths. It's a bizarre thing to start a psychotic episode over, but I freaked over that, and then I started questioning everything in my life and my entire identity.

I completely credit Prozac with saving my life.

Are you still taking anything for depression these days?
Yeah, I still take Sertraline, but that's just because I'm miserable. I'm a year sober in four days, but when I got sober I realized I was still down in the dumps, so I went to my doctor, and they put me back on those. It seems to work.

How would you compare taking Prozac when you were still in college to taking Sertraline now?
I think it really helped when I was eighteen. Like, I think I would probably have done something really bad if I hadn't taken it. I completely credit it with more or less saving my life, really. If I'd been left without medication at that point, I would have been sectioned. They say things like it stifles your creativity and things like that, but I don't believe that's true at all.

So you didn't experience the kind of negative side effects people sometimes talk about with Prozac?
I felt a little bit drowsy, but that was a small price to pay for my own sanity and not feeling like I wanted to throw myself in front of a train. I think it's almost irresponsible to recommend that people stay off these things when they're in a really bad way. Like, saying you should try some breathing exercises or whatever it is. It's going to be a chemical imbalance in your brain a lot of the time that needs to be redressed before you can do anything about the things that have caused your depression or your mental illness, and I really want to hammer that point home. It saved my life, and it didn't stifle my creativity. The only things that have stifled my creativity have been illegal drugs and alcohol—they've fucked my life up.

Greta, 20, student

What was going wrong at the time you were prescribed these meds?
When I was little, like six, I had all these phobias. It got to the stage where it was really bad, and I couldn't fall asleep and stuff, so I was prescribed these tablets. I don't actually know the name of them, but I remember what they did.

How did the doctors come to the decision that you needed the drugs?
When I was eight, we went to the doctor's, and they ran some tests, and I had to go to the psychiatrist, and they asked me questions throughout that and realized I was exhausted and tired and couldn't sleep. They just prescribed the pills.

What did it feel like when you were on them?
It kind of used to take away all my emotions. Obviously, as a child, you don't understand what's going on. As an adult, I feel like that would be really weird for me and that I wouldn't be able to function properly at all in society, knowing that there were things I wasn't experiencing to do with my own brain.

Did they work?
Yeah, they used to make me feel really calm and not feel any anxiety or anything. After three or four years, I stopped taking them because everything had gone away.

If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, get help at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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