April 2, 2024 - 10:00am

New figures suggest nearly 500,000 antidepressant prescriptions are being given to children each year, with only one in four having visited a child psychiatrist before they were given the pills. This is despite guidelines recommending that they should only be used in the most severe cases, due to the severity of potential side-effects (including suicide ideation, impaired sexual function and withdrawal symptoms) as well as studies suggesting that in the vast majority of cases antidepressants only have marginal benefits in adolescents.

The scale of the problem is staggering: in 2022, over 170,000 teenagers were on antidepressants, including one in ten 19-year-olds. Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the charity Sane, said that we have “created a generation of lost, lonely and disconnected young people” and “we should not be handing out antidepressants to children simply because there’s nothing else to offer.” This is true, but the key word here is “created”: this is a Frankenstein’s monster of modernity, made out of two fundamental changes.

The first is our modern societal tendency to pathologise normal adolescent experiences. Parents and teenagers have internalised this medicalised narrative of wellbeing: children who hate going to school now suffer from “school phobia” or “school avoidance”; GCSE students are not just nervous but have “exam stress” or “anxiety”. Everyday emotional responses have been rebranded in therapeutic language, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between normal teenage sadness, angst and insecurity and real mental health problems. With no definitive diagnostic criteria or tests, the difference between the normal and abnormal now becomes a question of social convention (i.e. what TikTok told me) rather than medical convention, and we have ended up in a place where common behaviours are seen as a sort of dysfunction that needs medical attention.

Yet greater self-diagnosis or self-reporting is not the whole story behind this new mental health epidemic. For example, it does not explain why the rate of self-harm among teenage girls nearly tripled between 2010 and 2020, or why the suicide rate amongst adolescents increased by 167%. Jonathan Haidt, in his new book The Anxious Generation, argues that the loss of the play-based childhood and the rise of the phone-based childhood are instead responsible for this mental health crisis. Smartphones and social media have fundamentally rewired and revolutionised children’s social habits, role models, emotions, physical activity and sleep patterns, meaning that they now grow up in networks rather than communities, more engaged in the virtual world than the real one.

So on the one hand, we have overly paranoid parenting that looks for labels and diagnoses for normal (albeit sometimes difficult) emotions and experiences. On the other, we have laissez-faire parenting that gives prepubescent children a portal to an alternative universe in their pockets with virtually no legal limits. This paradox has led to a generation of digital guinea pigs who are not so much depressed as helplessly confused: undergoing all the usual trials and tribulations of adolescence (break-ups, peer pressure, self-consciousness and body image) with new challenges and dangers, while being told by everyone — schools, parents, social media — that they should constantly be checking in on their mental health.

This constant introspection and self-comparison, alongside messages broadcast on TikTok that glamourise and oversimplify mental illness (there is a whole TikTok subgenre called traumacore), is leading teenagers to question themselves and their feelings more and more. Antidepressants, though, are not the answer they should be looking for.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.