Articles > Teenage Depression and The Long Term Effects of Prescription Drugs

4 Jun 2006

My teenager suffers from bouts of depression that sometimes last more than a week. I'm concerned about long-term side effects of prescription drugs. Can you offer any advice through Chinese Medicine?

There seems to be a growing concern about an increased risk of suicidality (suicidal thinking and behavior) among children and adolescents being treated with antidepressant agents. Chinese medicine with its long tradition of recognizing the connection between mind and body may offer an excellent alternative view and treatment to this common human condition. From the time humans started developing feelings towards each other, they began experiencing feelings of sadness whenever things went wrong. These feelings are granted, and over time most people can grow out of them as in the case of most other conditions. But sometimes the transition is not as smooth as we would like it to be, something happens in the process of suffering this condition. Like the water streams down the path of least resistance, the condition can take a different route as it “attacks” the weaker part of one’s body. As a result, one can suffer subsequent conditions like low appetite, insomnia, low energy, forgetfulness, irritability, crying, inability to focus, etc.

In Western medicine, a patient needs to present a set of symptoms in a given criteria for a diagnosis. A collection of symptoms is then grouped together to justify the prescription of antidepressant. From a Chinese medicine point of view, these different symptoms need to be dealt with separately because they represent totally different conditions. Western medicine treats depression a symptom of abnormal brain chemistry.  Medications are geared towards neutralizing this chemistry, thus creating the feeling of normalcy.  Chinese medicine, on the other hand, views depression as Hert problems, caused largely by constraint of emotion in the chest. Thus the imbalance in brain chemistry is a consequence of this emotional constraint. This is the start! The condition then can often travel to Liver and Spleen, or combine with other pathologic factors such as Phlegm and Fire. Here the Heart, Liver, and Spleen are all in terms of Chinese medicine physiology, which are not completely equal to what we understand in modern science based on cadaver biopcy. They are based on live observations through human history. The pathogenic factors Phlegm and Fire are the signs a diseased body presents to us, and are tightly connected to the treatment strategy.
In terms of Chinese medicine treatment, first the diagnosis is differentiated based on what other symptoms and signs we find in the patient, besides feeling depressed. Then the treatment strategy combines acupuncture and/or herbal formula, to restore the balance of the Organ(s) involved, and clear up the pathogenic factors. During the process of healing, the treatment strategy is dynamic and flexible in tune with whatever transformation the patient’s body might go through.   
The depression observed in children and adolescents is usually a start of a long term condition. It makes sense to deal with depression as early as possible, not to let it linger and become permanent. Not only do we need to address it early, because it is easier to resolve before it becomes chronic, but also we need to deal with it effectively, to tackle each weakness the body presents to us individually. Chinese medicine is certainly an alternative option worth considering in conjunction with Western medicine.

Paul (Chyi-Shyang) Lin, Doctor of Oriental Medicine