As someone who developed symptoms of anxiety and depression at a very young age, one of my passions is helping young people with their mental health as well as educating parents. If I had the proper interventions when I was younger, I may not have turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. If I didn’t turn to drugs and alcohol to cope, I may not have lost a decade of my life to my addiction.
I came across a study yesterday on Twitter because I follow a lot of different mental health journals, and this article was titled What do the Brains of Children Tell Us About Their Mental Health as Teens? While I’m happy that people are realizing the epidemic of young people struggling with mental health disorders and suicide being one of the leading causes of teenagers, we all need to understand that many of these studies are flawed, so we need to do our own research.
Why So Many Studies are Flawed
We look to scientists to do studies to progress our understanding of the world so they can help lead us down the right path towards making life better for everyone. The issue is that many of these studies are flawed because researchers are under an immense amount of pressure.
As you know, college is expensive, and student loans are no joke. Although we believe that researchers and people like psychologists are making bank, that’s not the case. My mother has her PhD in psychology and has quite the resume, but she doesn’t make nearly as much as you’d expect.
One of the ways researchers and psychologists make money to pay off their massive student loans and provide for themselves and their families is by publishing studies. Not only is there financial pressure, but there’s also career pressure. Many of these researchers are also educators, and they’re all trying to get tenure. In order to get tenure in this field, you need to publish studies.
An issue with publishing these studies is that when you’re under this much pressure, you waste time studying things that don’t need to be studied, and it can also make you sloppy with the way you report these studies.
If you want to tickle your funny bone while learning more about this issue, I highly suggest the episode of Last Week Tonight where John Oliver breaks it down.
The main reason so many studies across the board are so flawed is because of bias. We’re all bias. You and I are bias, and researchers are no different. We like to think that every study we come across was taken from this objective point of view, but it’s human nature to find results that confirm what you already believe.
It’s more common than you think for researchers to find results in the data that prove what they already believe. The checks and balances that are in place is the peer-review process. In order to really trust a study, you submit your study to your peers, and ideally, they’ll try every way under the sun to disprove your findings. That’s the only way to put it under proper scrutiny.
Scanning Kids’ Brains to Predict Mental Illness Isn’t That Effective
If you’re interested in what we’re talking about, I highly recommend you check out the book Saving Normal, which was written by the man who led the team that created the DSM-IV, Allen Frances. The premise of the book is that we’re diagnosing too much when many symptoms are completely normal.
And this is truer than ever when it comes to children.
The study focused on 54 seven-year-old children, analyzing patterns of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, two regions of the brain associated with attention and mood. The researchers coupled that data with activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is important for focusing, controlling impulses, and other highly complex cognitive functions.
The team found that stronger associations of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex at age seven predicted attention problems at age 11. Also, weaker associations of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and subgenual anterior cingulate predicted anxiety and depression problems by age 11. The predictions were also successfully replicated on separate groups of children with and without a family history of depression.
This made me roll my eyes because I can’t imagine how much money they wasted to publish coming to this conclusion. If we’re measuring the strength of the functions of the prefrontal cortex of children between seven and 11 years old, it’s going to be impossible to find a control group.
Why? While the prefrontal cortex is responsible for emotional regulation and attention, it doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their 20s.
In his book, Allen Frances dives deeper into the discussion of bias when it comes to psychologists, therapists and researchers. Depending on their specific field of study, they’re more likely to focus on that particular issue and potentially find the wrong source of the problem. If you’re looking for a therapist, find one that uses the biopsychosocial model because it’ll help alleviate this issue.
Psychologists and psychiatrists who studied the field of biology as it relates to mental illness are more likely to attribute problems to biological factors (brain development, genetics etc.) Another who’s studies included everything from the work of people like Freud, Jung and all of the great psychologists of the 20th century will pay a lot of attention to your psychological issues. Others will look at your social situations and environment to see how it’s playing a role in your mental health issues.
Why is this Important?
Don’t get me wrong. Family history plays a big role in developing mental health disorders, but it’s not as much as we think. My concern is that when studies are being published that put a big focus on biological factors is that it gives Big Pharma one more excuse to make more medications we don’t need and have doctors push them on us.
I’m the primary example of why the biopsychosocial model needs to be used if we hope to make actual progression when it comes to helping our youth with their mental health issues.
Mental illness runs in my family. My mom, aunt, uncle, sister and myself have all struggled with addiction (we’re all sober now). We’ve actually done tests, and they found the addiction gene has been passed down through my grandma’s side of the family. My mom also struggles with mental health issues that’s been tamed by therapy, 12-step programs and medication, and I’ve been diagnosed with the same disorders she has. So biology has played a major role in my mental health issues.
The problem is that if I just stopped at the biological issues of my mental health problems, I’d be screwed.
Most of us have psychological problems that go far beyond the biological issues of our brains. Most of us have a thinking problem. Those of us who have mental health issues struggle with an assortment of cognitive distortions. We catastrophize minor issues, which causes us anxiety. We think in black and white, which makes it difficult for us to have relationships. We live in the future and beat ourselves up for the past.
People like us don’t just need meds, we need therapy. If it wasn’t for methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, I wouldn’t live the amazing life I live today. These types of therapies have taught me to challenge my thoughts and beliefs, which then helps me change my actions.
Lastly, there’s the social aspect, and this is my main issue of the brain scan study of kids.
I grew up in an alcoholic household where I had no sense of security, and it caused me to have an abnormal childhood. I just revisited a lot of the issues I developed by re-reading Adult Children of Alcoholics. When your environment is that hectic and unpredictable growing up, you’re at an extremely high risk of developing anxiety, depression and trauma.
The study looked at children between ages of 7 and 11 years old, and the brain scan won’t say much about what the kid’s home environment is like or if they’re bullied at school. And what if the kid was traumatized at age 12? Wouldn’t that increase the risk of mental illness for their teenage years?
At the end of the day, I’m glad they’re at least looking into this. When I was growing up, nobody talked to me about mental health, so I’m happy it’s at least on the mind of these researchers. The responsibility is ours though. You and I need to understand what we’re looking at when we see these studies so we can give our youth the best care possible.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, a teacher or have nieces and nephews. We all need to realize that there are many factors that can harm a child’s mental health, so we need to educate ourselves on figuring out what the actual problem is. If we just stick to thinking that these are biological issues that are potentially based on flawed and bias science, we’re going to miss the real source of the problem when it comes to our children.