Decoding Teenage Depression
Antidepressants and Suicide
Will is part of a huge but often invisible demographic group -- the estimated 3 million teenagers in the United States who suffer from clinical depression. In any given year, up to 8 percent of teens are depressed, higher than the adult rate, which hovers around 5 percent.
While the disorder can be effectively treated with medications, these drugs increase the risk of expressing suicidal thoughts in a small number of kids. Furthermore, news reports of violent incidents involving teens on antidepressant medications -- Jeff Weise, the Minnesota teen who went on a shooting rampage at a local high school, and Christopher Pittman, a 12-year old South Carolina boy who killed his grandparents, were both taking antidepressants -- have, understandably, made many parents loath to medicate, despite the extreme rarity of these reactions. The result is that millions of youngsters are left untreated.
"Parents are understandably cautious about putting their children on medications," says Sharon Hirsch, MD, acting section chief for child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. "There's so much we don't know about how these drugs work in kids."
Suicide rates have actually been declining since the 1990s, when the class of antidepressants known as SSRIs came into wide use. "Studies on teens who have committed suicide have found that the majority were not on antidepressants at the time," says John Walkup, MD, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, in Baltimore. "It's underdiagnosis and undertreatment of depression that are the issues, not overtreatment."
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