There’s a widely accepted belief among many parents that giving anti-depressants to a child is ‘a very bad thing’. Before Nora fell ill, I was one of ‘those’ parents.
I believed that the medical profession routinely over-prescribed anti-depressants to children who ‘didn’t really need them’. I believed this on the basis of no real evidence. I believed it because other parents believed it. I believed it because I read opinion pieces in broadsheet newspapers about the damaging effects of proscribing anti-depressants to young people.
I believed it because I was incredibly ignorant about mental health problems and the devastating effects they can have on young people and their families.
The purpose of this post isn’t to debate the pros and cons of giving anti-depressants to young people. I’ve had my fair share of negative reactions from other parents who ‘don’t think it’s wise’ for my child (yep, my child not theirs) to be taking drugs that can help her get better again. Quite frankly, I’m tired of trying to explain to people that if Nora wasn’t taking anti-depressants, she would very possibly be dead.
If you’re a parent wondering whether or not anti-depressants are the right choice for you child, I can’t help you make that choice. But I can tell you this: I absolutely believe that anti-depressants saved my daughter’s life.
This post is for parents who made the same choice we did.
Based my experiences with Nora, here are the five things I wish I’d known earlier. If I had, it would have saved me a whole lot of heartache and far too many hours searching the internet for answers.
They take time to work
When Nora was first prescribed anti-depressants we had unrealistic expectations of how quickly they would work. We watched her, day after day, for any signs of improvement. For the longest time, nothing changed.
It doesn’t help that it took time to get her dosage right (see below), but the waiting really was tough.
Nora’s been taking anti-depressants for five months now. During that time, her recovery has been remarkable. She’s still not ‘better’, but she is significantly different from the mute, withdrawn, suicidal child she was a few short months ago.
I know that her recovery isn’t only down to the anti-depressants, but they’ve certainly helped.
So, if you and your child are at the start of your journey with anti-depressants, hang on in there. It takes time, but the wait really is worth it.
You may not get the dosage right first time
Because mental health is so complicated, and children’s brains are still developing, finding the right level of the right kind of anti-depressant for a child can take time.
Nora is taking an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) anti-depressant called Fluoxetine (commonly known as Prozac). We had to try the drug at three different levels before we saw any effects. Because the side effects are so horrible in kids, increasing the level of medication has to be done gradually.
Again, all of this takes time. Again, it’s worth hanging in if you can.
The side effects are horrible, but they pass quickly
One of the (very valid) reasons parents are reluctant to give anti-depressants to their children is because of the side effects. They are horrific.
Nora’s depression meant she was extremely suicidal and unable to eat. She tried to kill herself several times. She was self-harming. She lost so much weight we thought she might have be fed through a tube.
Two of the most common side effects of Fluoxetine in children are increased suicidal thoughts and nausea. If your child is already suicidal, and already struggling to eat enough food to survive, you really don’t want her taking something that’s going to make this worse.
Did we see any side effects? Yes. Nora threw up for several nights after she first started taking Fluoxetine. And she was extremely suicidal (although, if I’m honest, I couldn’t say whether this was because of the drugs or part of her general illness).
However, the side effects pass. In Nora’s case, they passed relatively quickly (I would say they had disappeared completely after three weeks).
They won’t ‘cure’ your child but they will help
I really wish I’d known this earlier. Somehow, I believed anti-depressants would miraculously ‘cure’ my daughter. I read other people’s experiences of taking anti-depressants. They spoke about waking one morning and feeling as if a cloud had lifted from them. I thought this was how it would be for Nora, but this wasn’t our experience.
Nora’s recovery was gradual. Day by day, we started to notice small improvements. Taken together, those improvements are dramatic. But they are still only part of her recovery.
The really key part from now on will be the work she does with her CAMHS counsellor, helping her to manage her feelings and build the resilience she needs to navigate her way through her teenage years.
When they start to work, it’s the best thing ever
This is why you have to hang in there when your child starts taking anti-depressants. For all the reasons listed above, it’s not easy. But it’s worth it.
My child was so very ill. She had stopped talking. She wanted to die. She had developed psycho-motor retardation, a condition that slows down your thought processes and body movements.
Today, she is engaged with the world again. She can fall asleep without needing me to be with her. She speaks and laughs and cracks jokes with her brother. She sees her friends. We go swimming in the sea. She is alive and embracing life.
All of this means more than anything. My girl is coming back to me.
We chose to give Nora anti-depressants, exactly as we would choose to give her life saving medication if she had cancer or any other illness. I am very glad we did.