What It Feels Like When Your Child Has Depression

Photographed by Nattapong.
Young people in the UK are some of the unhappiest in the world – a survey released today found that a mere 25% of girls and young women describe themselves as "very happy", down from 41% in 2009. And the mental health services that are meant to be supporting them are in crisis, with teachers and campaigners recently describing the situation as "intolerable".
One side-effect of this unhappiness is an increased proportion of young people being diagnosed with mental health problems (and self-harming) and prescribed medication. Recently it emerged that the number of antidepressants prescribed to children in England, Scotland and Ireland has increased substantially over the last three years, with experts blaming long waiting times for specialist mental health services.
The reasons why a young person might develop a mental health problem are complex and multiple, says Matt Blow, policy manager at child and adolescent mental health charity YoungMinds. "But we know that young people today face a wide range of pressures... including school stress, bullying, pressures around body image and growing up in an online world," the latter of which is unique to the current generation. Difficult or traumatic experiences, like growing up in poverty or experiencing abuse, also have a big impact.
While antidepressants have their place in treating some mental health conditions, Blow believes they shouldn't be "prescribed as a sticking plaster for poor access to talking therapies." Currently, "far too many children and young people have to wait months before they get the support they need, or never receive that support at all – and this urgently needs to change. If antidepressants are prescribed, it’s crucial that children and parents have comprehensive information about the side-effects, so they can make informed decisions about whether it’s the right approach."
Antidepressants are most commonly prescribed to treat moderate or severe depression, as well as OCD, generalised anxiety disorder and PTSD, and the NHS recommends people properly weigh up the potential side-effects before taking them. One woman who has been through the process as a parent is Vikie Shanks, whose family tragedy was turned into the Netflix documentary Kingdom of Us. The author and blogger has seven children, including two daughters who were first put on antidepressants as teenagers at 13 and 14. Now aged 17 and 21, they each continue to take citalopram and fluoxetine. Shanks spoke to Refinery29 about parenting children with mental health struggles and the taboo that still surrounds antidepressants.
My husband took his own life in 2007 when my youngest daughter was six and the oldest was 16. The youngest is autistic and was struggling in the aftermath. She's been in therapy for many years and has spent most of the last three years in an adolescent psychiatric unit. My older daughter was 13 or 14 when it happened and and is also autistic. She was severely depressed and really wasn't coping with life at all, she could barely get out of bed and her life was horrible. So the psychiatrist and I agreed to try fluoxetine and see if it would help her mood. She's been on antidepressants ever since; she's now on citalopram, which I think works better. My younger daughter is now on antipsychotics as well. She was originally admitted to hospital for anorexia but we now know she's also got borderline personality disorder, which we didn't know at the time. My older daughter has anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation and a lot of other things. The medication keeps them stable and I can tell when they haven't taken their tablets.
The suicide was very traumatic and dramatic. But before then my husband was also mentally ill and very erratic, and his behaviour could cause the children to feel very scared. Both of the girls were very traumatised by his behaviour, and then the suicide was a last straw. Having said that, I'm not sure with or without those factors, whether they would have been on medication anyway. They were struggling before he died. Putting them on antidepressants was a decision made between myself and the psychiatrist. We had to do something at the time and that was the only thing we could do because neither of them were able to access talking therapy and what they were accessing wasn't helping them.

If they need them for the rest of their lives, I can't see the harm. It's a little white pill every morning and it keeps you going.

Antidepressants aren't the answer for some kids but in my daughters' cases they've been effective. I can see a change in them and while the drugs don't solve everything, they help them to remain stable and keep going, and sometimes that's what you need. A lot of people say antidepressants have a numbing effect but I disagree. I'm on 40mg of citalopram and have been for years. I don't feel it numbs my emotions, it just keeps me okay enough to do what I have to do. You need to get the medication and dosage right, which can be difficult as they don't start working straightaway. You have to wait six weeks to see if they really are making any difference. That can be quite difficult to gauge for some parents.
It doesn't worry me that they might be on them forever. Personally I'd be happy being on citalopram for the rest of my life because when I had a heart attack last year they took me off it and I became very ill. We'll try to decrease their dosage at some point and see if that works but if they need them for the rest of their lives, I can't see the harm. It's a little white pill every morning and it keeps you going, it keeps you stable.

Some parents feel they've failed their child if they have to take medication.

It wasn't the greatest thing when my daughters first went on them. You don't want your child to take medication but being logical about it, I knew we had to try it. I was open-minded because I wanted them to be able to lead the best life they could. But some parents refuse to go down that road, so it's an incredibly individual thing. If you've got a young child who can't make that decision for themselves then you have to be the one that makes that call. You want to do what's best and you don't want to put drugs into your child, but if it's the right thing to do then it's the right thing to do.
Some parents feel they've failed their child if they have to take medication. I do a lot of campaigning on mental health, autism and suicide, and I think the stigma around mental health and taking tablets has to be tackled at every level. If we stop stigmatising adults who take antidepressants then the stigma of children taking them will be lowered. We have to be more open about mental health and what people struggle with. When I had my heart attack recently I had to take numerous drugs for my health and I wouldn't dream of not taking them, so I don't see the difference between taking drugs to help my heart and taking a drug to help my brain. If you can look at it that way and get other people to look at it that way, then that stigma is going to be lowered significantly. You might be seen as weak if you take antidepressants, but if you need something to balance the chemicals in your brain then you need something to balance the chemicals in your brain.

Children aren't children anymore. They're under far too much pressure.

I'm not surprised about the rise in the number of children taking antidepressants. They're under pressure from school to get certain grades. They're under pressure from social media to look a certain way. In my time we didn't have things like that and the pressure wasn't there. Social media is a very powerful tool and it's great, but at the same time the peer pressure is insidious. It's going into young people's brains and they're constantly being made to think about what they should have and what they should look like. Children aren't children anymore, they're expected to perform a certain way and be a certain way. They're under far too much pressure.
To any parent feeling like a failure because their child is on antidepressants, I'd say: don't feel ashamed. Be open-minded and if the drugs are helping your child then go with it for as long as you need to. Keep reviewing it, keep an open mind constantly. I always have, as to whether we should try something different or try a lower dose, but I don't feel ashamed because it has nothing to do with anything anyone's done. It's just a fact of life and society shouldn't make you feel guilty. Society should be supportive of different people and the ways they're different and they need different therapies. If it's working for your child then fantastic, you've found something that works. It's a positive thing if it's helping and it shouldn't be stigmatised.
For more information about mental health medication visit YoungMinds' website HeadMeds.org.uk
If you are struggling with mental health issues, please get help. Call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.

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