In The Doctor Who Took Kids Off Drugs, Dr Chris van Tulleken is on a mission. As a new father, the young doctor strives to cut through the market noise to deliver clear facts on when we should and shouldn’t medicate our kids.
Over the course of the two-part special, he deep dives into the use of paracetamol, allergy treatments and ADHD medication, testing drug-free alternatives and revealing sobering truths in the process. But perhaps most startling is his inquiry into the growing use of antidepressants.
Why the spike in antidepressant use?
Australia has one of the highest rates of antidepressant use in the world. Over the past two decades, antidepressant prescriptions among children and teenagers has risen steadily into the hundreds of thousands. The situation is similar in the UK, and Dr Chris wants to know whether this spike is due to more people seeking treatment due to an increased awareness of mental health, or due to the fact that GPs and psychiatrists are now a bit too quick to reach for the prescription pad.
This question is even more pertinent when it comes to the youth of today, as their brains are still developing and both the effects and side-effects of these medications are often worrying, unpredictable, and even, not entirely understood.
How effective are antidepressants?
The efficacy of antidepressants is still up in the air. Some patients seem to get genuine relief or reach noticeable stabilisation through their use, but thanks to a gaping hole in the way of hard data, the most available evidence is anecdotal.
In the doco, Dr Chris visits the mother of a young girl named Rachel, who, after being prescribed Fluoxetine (also known as Prozac) – followed by Sertraline (also known as Zoloft) – experienced disastrous side-effects including suicidal ideation. Her story doesn’t have a happy ending.
He also explores the flipside – evidence that suggests that 13 out of 14 of the most prescribed antidepressants are no more effective than a placebo.
Further investigation leads him to the UK’s national guidelines that dictate how doctors should tackle depression in young people, and to question whether they need a complete revision.
A different approach
Jess, from Essex, is 15 years old and has suffered from anxiety and depression since she was a young child. When not at school – which she finds almost unbearable and rarely attends – she holes away in her bedroom so that she doesn’t “have to deal with reality anymore”. She finds refuge in disturbing sketches and self harm and has been on an ever-increasing dose of Sertraline for just under a year. Her symptoms only seem to be worsening.
Dr Chris is determined to find an alternative, med-free way of getting Jess out of her self-imposed prison, so he takes her to Wilderness Foundation UK – a charity organisation that uses wide, wild spaces and one-on-one mentoring to tackle mental illness.
In this two-part social experiment, Dr Chris van Tulleken will challenge your idea of what you think might be ‘good for you’ and helps us find out if going cold turkey with prescription medication can revolutionise how we approach wellness.
The Doctor Who Took Kids Off Drugs airs Monday 12 November at 8.35pm on SBS. Part 2 airs the following week, on Monday 19, at the same time, on the same channel.