WASHINGTON -- Recent press stories tell of a growing number of children who suffer from depression and how parents and the pharmaceutical industry prescribe drugs as the solution. One story in the New York Times told of a 15-year-old girl who has been taking Prozac for depression since she was 5.
Prozac sales fell 5 percent last year as the adult market for prescription drugs has become saturated. Drug companies are looking for new customers, and they are eyeing children. Some want the Food and Drug Administration to clear the way so they can market their antidepressants and other mood-altering drugs to kids.
Does anyone ask why?
Before rushing to the medicine cabinet, someone should ask this question: Why are so many children depressed? Why are we daily experiencing 1,000 unwed teen-age girls becoming mothers; 1,106 teen-age girls getting abortions; 4,219 teen-agers contracting sexually transmitted diseases; 500 adolescents starting on illegal drugs; 1,000 adolescents starting to consume alcoholic beverages; 135,000 kids bringing guns or other weapons to school; 3,610 teens assaulted, including 80 who are raped; 2,200 teens dropping out of high school, and six teens committing suicide? (Statistics compiled by the Children's Defense Fund and the book ''13th Generation'' by Neil Howe and Bill Strauss.)
Clinical psychologist Jeff Berryhill, who works with children in the high-stress Washington area, tells me that broken homes and the failure to establish meaningful relationships because of too much work are the primary contributors to childhood depression. ''Everybody is stressed out,'' he says, ''and the children get caught in the shuffle. Parents are preoccupied with themselves and life has become harder after a two-decade diet of self-direction.''
A management tool
Dr. Berryhill says using drugs to control the behavior of children becomes ''a management tool to improve the comfort level of whoever the kid is living with.'' He's not sure what impact prescription-drug use on children will have in the ''war on drugs'' designed to persuade teen-agers not to experiment with the illegal kind.
Well, I'm sure. If drugs are used to alter the mood of a child, what moral authority do adults have to persuade a teen-ager not to alter his or her mood with marijuana, heroin or cocaine?
While not all medication for children should be considered a bad idea, too many in our modern culture turn to pills first. That's because an entire generation has come to believe that any kind of suffering is bad. We have become intolerant of any form of discomfort, including boredom. So, rather than do the heavy lifting that comes with personal responsibility, we take a pill, snort or shoot up.
After reading the press report on the 15-year-old who has been taking Prozac since she was 5, Dr. Berryhill tells me that it ''sounds as if she has an anxiety disorder, possibly she is obsessive-compulsive, not depressed.'' The story tells nothing of her family situation, but the psychologist says ''by using medication, it allows us to ignore everything else about the problem. Taking a pill makes the feeling go away, and we don't have to think about the cause of the depression or anxiety.''
The insurance companies prefer drugs to more expensive counseling. And parents who are on life's fast track will persuade themselves that they are doing what is in their child's best interest. Except that the child's best interest would be parents who had more time for them.
There's nothing new about rearing a child. It is the most important work adults do (or don't do). Even though the culture doesn't affirm good parenting, think of it this way. Which would you rather hear at your funeral -- your boss extolling you for your dedication to the office or your child praising you for your dedication to his or her life?
No drug can substitute for right parenting. And, except where medically necessary, love, not drugs, is a far better prescription.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/25/97