Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Is My Child Depressed? Being Moody Isn't a Mental Illness

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Is My Child Depressed? Being Moody Isn't a Mental Illness

Article excerpt

Is my child depressed? Being moody isn't a mental illness


This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.


Author: Dr. Stanley Kutcher, Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health, Dalhousie University

It is difficult to open up a magazine or newspaper today without seeing a headline trumpeting the presence of a "mental health crisis" -- particularly on our college and university campuses.

Indeed, if the media coverage is to be believed, we are drowning in a sea of mental illness that threatens to overwhelm post-secondary institutions.

The call then is for more pills, more therapy, more of everything, including more panic. Perhaps it's time for some sober critical analysis.

The prevalence of mental illnesses (defined using clear diagnostic criteria) is not rising in this cohort.

Youth self-reports of negative emotions are increasing. But the self-report scales used in studies documenting this have not been calibrated for generational changes in language use. Nor have the results been validated using clear, clinically valid, diagnostic criteria applied by expert clinicians.

Some of the surveys that have contributed to this panic also collapse different questions into meaningless categories (for example collapsing "all the time" and "often" into one category).

The above noted self-reports do identify the ups and downs of everyday emotions, but these are not criteria for diagnosis of mental illness. So we can say that youth on campus may report feeling more negative emotions than previously, but this is not the same thing as saying that young people have more mental disorders than previously.

Throwing gasoline on the fire

Instead of applying critical thinking to these self-reports, many health and media professionals have rushed to throw gasoline on the fire.

Here's an example. In late 2017, the study "Mental ill-health among children of the new century: Trends across childhood with the focus on age 14" was published by the National Children's Bureau in the United Kingdom.

This showed that self-reported negative emotions were present in about one quarter of this surveyed group, but this was interpreted as 25 per cent of 14-year-old girls in the UK suffer from depression!

The fact that parental reports identified about five per cent of this cohort as having significant mood problems was ignored by almost all commentators. This latter number is much more in keeping with known rates of depression in the population.

The presence of a mental disorder was not independently established and the discrepancy between parental and child reports was ignored.

The cautionary words popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan, that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" were not applied. As expected, this study was followed by yet more calls for more therapy, more pills and more panic.

Negative emotions are healthy

These concerns are not the result of substantial epidemic increases in the rates of mental illness. They arise, in some part, from poor mental health literacy and unrealistic expectations of the normal emotional states that life challenges elicit.

In many cases the self-identification of being "ill" arises, to quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet, from not being able to differentiate the normal "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" from pathological states. …

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