On this blog and in my new book, Dosed: The Medication Generation Grows Up, I explore young people’s experiences with medication. And oftentimes, by exposing their ambivalence, even their resentment, toward their treatment from an early age, I end up implicitly questioning the value of early intervention for mental illness.
So in honor of the American Psychological Association’s Mental Health Month Blog Party Day, I want to address the question of whether I think early intervention is worth it.
I do. And I don’t just mean with medication. I mean some kind of intervention – by parents, teachers, social workers, pediatricians, therapists of many stripes and child psychiatrists.
Many people are in a position to help troubled children who are suffering from mental health problems. And I think they should. In many cases, that means prescribing psychotropic drugs. But it doesn’t have to. And I think only in very rare cases should meds be the sole treatment a young person gets.
Treatment, not just with medication, can have side effects. Not just physical, but psychological and social implications when it doesn’t work out so well – or when multiple therapies don’t work out. But I think it is worth a try.
Why intervene early? Besides studies show that early intervention can help stave off a worse course of illness in many disorders, including bipolar disorder and depression. There’s the argument of limited time to spare.
Childhood and adolescence are just too short to give up to mental illness. I say this as someone who spent years of her adolescence in a state of low-level depression.
Were those totally wasted years for me? No. I wasn’t so deeply depressed that I was unable to accomplish anything, or unable to make lasting friendships, or even incapable of having some fun. But I did it all under a cloak of frustration and sadness that felt like it was constantly dragging me down.
And as the millions of adults who didn’t receive treatment until later in life will tell you, when no one intervenes, there’s no way to get those years back.
So even though I write about the many wrinkles that medication treatment creates, the ways that it complicates so many areas of young people’s lives, I’m far from anti-medication, and I am far from throwing up my hands and saying that the sentiment behind medication treatment from a young age – early intervention – is misguided.
It is well-meaning, and we should support it when undertaken responsibly, cautiously and with the goal of relieving suffering and dysfunction. This should be true of any intervention for a child’s mental illness.
Likewise, any intervention should be embarked upon not to make life easier or more convenient for the adults involved, but in a way that helps – and, as much as possible, is comfortable and amenable – to the child.