Does treating childhood mental health conditions with drugs mean we’re medicalizing adolesence?

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Over the last few decades the medical community has made significant strides towards diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. On an especially promising front, we’re now giving childhood mental health conditions the recognition they deserve.

However, for those who work with children, there’s always a feeling that overloading them with drugs could cause more harm than good. As a result it’s worth asking whether our desire to medicate young people is beneficial, or are we medicalizing adolescence?

The blurry lines between adolesence and childhood mental health

Adolesence is a tricky area that few of us understand. Not only is it subjective for the person living through it, it’s difficult for observers to analyze too, mainly because each person’s experience of it is so subjective.

Take the struggles many kids face in high school, for example. They may feel anxious about our social status or what a prospective boyfriend or girlfriend truly feels. As the pressure of obtaining good grades begins to mount, they may also show signs of distress. Using adult mental wellbeing scores, some of the emotions children display as they navigate such challenges while riding a wave of hormones could place them in the anxiety or depression category.

On a more controversial level, there’s ADHD. According to the CDC, just under 7 percent of American children have the condition.

As a legitimate childhood mental health condition that can make concentrating and behaving well difficult, it’s a diagnosis that can act as a permanently negative label for the child who receives it. Additionally, it’s difficult to tell the difference between a child who is rambunctious and developing normally versus one who will always struggle to concentrate and adhere to rules.

What are the dangers of medicalizing adolesence?

When each of us moved through our adolescent years we had the chance to develop coping skills that equipped us for adult life. The anxieties that came with our social status could help us develop problem-solving skills for the workplace. Discovering that we couldn’t in fact stand on a table and stomp up and down in a restaurant set us up for lives where rules were in place. Worrying about obtaining good grades eventually helped us to accept that hard work was necessary for progression.

Medicalizing adolesence by throwing our kids into the childhood mental health pool can rob them of such experiences. Additionally, using the medications that treat conditions such as bipolar disorder negatively affects neurological development. The pharmaceuticals we throw at ADHD can increase a child’s risk of cardiovascular disease later on in life.

Admittedly there is no excuse to ignore a genuine childhood mental health condition. But, with brains that are still developing and organ systems that can only withstand so much strain, is it worth taking a more tentative approach? From promoting a better body image at home to broadening services such as counseling and psychotherapy, there are multiple alternatives to consider before rushing down the medication route.

In taking a calmer approach to the milder aspects of childhood mental health we may prepare children better for the future. While we attempt to strike the right balance, it’s worth examining whether the conditions children supposedly present with are genuine, or are they simply going through the motions of growing up?

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.