News Commentary: Teens Suffer Depression Relapses

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Psychiatry Treats Symptoms
Not Patients

Half of the adolescents treated for depression in a recent study suffered a recurrence of symptoms within five years.  The study, reported in the New York Times, also found that girls were more likely to relapse than boys.  The research protocol consisted of three options: an antidepressant, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a placebo pill.

About the results, the study’s lead author concluded, “It looks like we don’t have a treatment yet that really prevents recurrence.”  In searching to explain the increased vulnerability of girls to relapse, he offered, “Maybe it has to do with something in girls…stressful life events or the way people cope with stress.”  A doctor who was not part of the study suggested it might be linked to hormonal changes or that “women tend to brood more, so the slightest stress is multiplied many times.”

Doctors so caught up in the biological aspects of depression stray from the reality of life for teenagers in general, and the particular challenges faced by so many adolescents who have suffered various kinds of trauma: from childhood sexual abuse to living in violent neighborhoods, from loss of a family member to having serious medical problems.  The list is, unfortunately, endless.

In choosing possible protocols, the researchers left out psychotherapy, that practice of engaging in conversation with the person who suffers.  Instead, treatments were selected based on their uniformity of practice and hence replicability by others; psychotherapy does not lend itself to standardization because of its focus on relationship.

Meanwhile, the adolescents get lost in the process.  The girls, more likely to have experienced sexual abuse than boys, get blamed for not being able to handle the stress in their lives.  They “brood.”  Perhaps the problem lies not with the teenagers but with adults unable to handle finding out what truly ails these young people.