With one in eight young people having a mental disorder, demand for access to mental health services is at an all-time high - and antidepressant use is on the increase. But is this a TV narrative that can prompt further discussion, or is it an attempt to undo the work of mental health campaigners and charities? Happiful explores both sides of the debate

Last year, there were 700,000 referrals of children and young people under 19 into mental health services – a 45% increase in two years. In Dispatches: Young, British & Depressed, (airing Monday 29 July at 8pm on Channel 4), Reporter Sanah Ahsan investigates this youth ‘depression crisis’ in the UK.

Recent data shows that half of children needing specialist mental health treatment waited more than four and a half months after their initial assessment, with two out of three people not getting the treatment they need. The documentary asks what is causing the rise in mental health problems among young people, whether antidepressants are being made available too quickly and whether de-stigmatisation campaigns have had an unintended consequence.

Dispatches surveyed 1,000 16 to 30 year olds in the UK, revealing:

  • 68% think they have had or are currently experiencing a mental health problem.
  • 61% think that mental health de-stigmatisation campaigns have been helpful to talk about mental health problems in general.
  • 62% who think that they have or have had a mental health problem say that de-stigmatisation campaigns have helped them identify it.

But Dispatches discovered that whilst mental health de-stigmatisation campaigns have undoubtedly had a positive impact on society’s ability to talk about their mental health and reduce stigma, some are questioning whether the dial has swung too far. The assertion is that people are now presenting themselves as experiencing depression or anxiety when, in fact, they are going through ‘normal human emotions’.

To consolidate the data, Dispatches surveyed 1,000 GPs across the UK. The survey found:

  • 58% believe an unintended consequence of destigmatisation campaigns has resulted in more people wrongly believing they have a mental health problem.
  • 63% frequently see patients who have self-diagnosed a mental health problem.

NHS Consultant Psychiatrist Professor Sami Timimi who works with children and teenagers believes mental ill-health is being diagnosed too quickly in some young people and many are just responding normally to difficult situations.

He said: “We’re promoting the idea that we should talk about things more often and it’s OK to have a mental health problem, but it’s made us afraid of emotions… It’s as if, when you experience intense emotions, that’s a sign that you’ve got a mental health problem, that’s a sign that there’s something wrong with you and it’s putting intense emotions into a bracket other than the ordinary things that people experience when they’re growing up.”

“I think that’s a very unhelpful cultural message. I’d rather that we were popularising the message that growing up is difficult, that we are actually quite resilient, that most people get through these difficult periods in their life,” said Timimi.

This is a conversation that has been played out on TV before, with critics such as Piers Morgan suggesting that the act of talking and awareness is 'causing' more harm than good. But, is this fair?

Ahead of the programme airing tonight, mental health advocates, including activist, author and friend of Happiful, Natasha Devon, have shared concerns that the emphasis on mental health awareness could be misleading and detrimental.

Talking to Happiful about tonight’s documentary, Natasha said: “There’s a certain degree of compassion fatigue in the media and so the media is always looking for a new angle on subjects. So, from an entertainment perspective, this narrative is understandable. But for Channel 4 and Dispatches in particular, which many people look to as a reliable source on current affairs, this kind of reporting is really damaging.”

Speaking about the limited language we have to talk about our emotions and feelings, Natasha provided some insight on the current youth mental health ‘epidemic’. “If we say we’re anxious, that can mean a huge range of things. For a young person, it might be that they are nervous about an exam that they’ve got coming up, or it might be that they are uncontrollably worried all the time, feeling on the verge of a panic attack. For a teacher to decipher what they mean can be hard, but the idea that they’re just then automatically referred to CAMHS (particularly with thresholds and waiting times being so high) is as misleading as it is ludicrous.”

So, where is the support for young people?

Jenny, a young person featured in the programme, told Dispatches: “These campaigns are asking people to reach out for help, it’s OK to feel this way, it’s OK like there’ll be help there if you reach out. There isn’t. There isn’t help. And so I actually think it’s dangerous that we’re telling people that and it's not the case.”

Dr Marc Bush from Mental Health charity Young Minds says this is not good enough: “I think what we need is every government to prioritise mental health. There’s been historic underfunding of children’s mental health. Lots of young people and families we talk to say they wait far too long to access a specialist service and sometimes they're turned away because their level of need isn't deemed great enough. And that's really worrying because we don't want people to end up with complex needs and we don’t want them to end up in a place of crisis.”

Dispatches: Young, British & Depressed reveals that, as the mental health system is overstretched, more young people are turning to antidepressants. Data obtained by Dispatches reveals that in 2018-19, 55,210 under 18s were prescribed antidepressants - seeing the biggest yearly increase since 2015 (2.4%).

However, for children, there is only one antidepressant for which clinical guidelines say the benefits outweigh the risks. Guidelines advise they should only be prescribed following assessment by a psychiatric specialist and alongside psychological support.

The Dispatches survey of GPs across the UK revealed:

  • 86% agree antidepressant prescribing across all age groups (not only under 18s) has increased due to lack of access to other services.
  • 39% of GPs do prescribe to under 18s but only 1% of them think it’s the best treatment for depression.

Of course, some young people find antidepressants are a useful and helpful part of their treatment, and many people do not experience any negative side effects and have positive experiences on the drugs. Dispatches investigated the potential withdrawal effects from antidepressants that some people can experience when they stop taking them. Current clinical guidelines on withdrawal from antidepressants state that symptoms are usually mild and last a week. However, this is not always the case.

Dr James Davies, from the University of Roehampton, has been leading a study charting some patients’ experiences of withdrawal from antidepressants. He told Dispatches:

“We found that antidepressant withdrawal is far more common, severe and long-lasting than our current national guidelines acknowledge…these guidelines say that withdrawal is invariably mild, resolving over about a week. The research shows, however, that about half of people who take antidepressants experienced withdrawal. Up to half of those report that withdrawal as severe, and a significant proportion experienced withdrawal for far longer than one week, for many weeks and in some cases months and beyond.”

He added: “What we often see are people either staying on the medications because it’s difficult to stop or when they do stop, those painful withdrawal reactions are being misread or misdiagnosed and the drugs are being reinstated.”

Dispatches: Young, British & Depressed airs Monday 29 July at 8pm on Channel 4.

If you are a young adult concerned about your mental health, or an adult who is concerned about the mental health of a young person, you can find more help Young Minds.

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