A friend of mine approached me the other day in tears.
The 9-year-old of a close friend of hers tried to kill himself.
“He’s 9!!??!!” she said.
“How do you explain that?”
It’s true that we are all born with genes that predispose us to all sorts of things — in my case bipolar disorder and depression. And yes, our ancestors had these same genes. However, there is a new science called epigenetics (meaning “above” or “outside” of genetics), the study of cellular variations that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence. Pam Peeke, MD, bestselling author of The Hunger Fix, explained it to me once in an interview. “If you can change certain key choices — your diet, how you handle stress, your physical activity — it’s like writing notes in the margin of your genome, and you can flip the switch to support and protect your health,” Dr. Peeke said.
That’s where I think we have failed our youth. I believe we are creating a world in which the genes that are predisposed to anxiety and depression are getting “turned on” and developing into mood disorders because we don’t have the proper protections in place.
In a study published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, it was demonstrated that approximately one fourth of children and adolescents experience a mental disorder during the past year, and about one third across their lifetimes. The World Health Organization reported last year that depression is the predominant cause of illness and disability for both boys and girls aged 10 to 19 years.
Was this always the case?
There is more awareness today, and that’s a good thing. The field of child psychiatry has evolved, and with it better ways to screen our kids. However, I can’t help but scratch my head and wonder what is “turning on” so many unhealthy cells. Here are a few of my theories, backed by a bit of research, of course.
1. Lack of Play
Play allows your brain to breathe and form the neurons that help you fend off negative intrusive thoughts and the baggage of a mood disorder. In his Psychology Today blog, The Decline of Play and the Rise of Mental Disorders, Peter Gray, PhD, connects the rise of depression and anxiety among children and adolescents with the deterioration of relaxed play in our society. “Free play and exploration,” he writes, “are … the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.” I plead guilty to not providing my kids, ages 11 and 13, the space for unstructured recreation, time to hang out and just be. However, we live in an area where they are not safe even in the front yard without supervision. And even if they could ride their bikes around the neighborhood, they would have no one to go with, because all their friends are at sports practices.
Today, approximately one mother in three gives birth by Cesarean section in this country. That’s 32.8 percent, as compared to a rate of 4.5 percent in 1965. The World Health Organization recommends that the Cesarean section rate should not be higher than 10 to 15 percent. It is associated with high maternal and neonatal complication rates. I think we are only beginning to learn about the long-term, complicated consequences of C-section births. For example, many studies have shown that babies born by Cesarean have an increased risk for developing allergies, asthma, and diabetes. However, a recent study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry adds autism and ADHD to the list. Why? Babies receive two critical exposures in the birth canal: the vaginal microbes or bacteria that protect mood and the acute stress that primes the baby’s immune system and calming, parasympathetic system.
Even harder for babies than Cesareans, I think, are emergency Cesareans, when a mom goes through the pleasure of child labor, only to end up having a Cesarean. In most cases, these also involve some kind of trauma, like an umbilical cord wrapped around the neck. The poor guys come into this world with anxiety, and often need to be taught how to calm themselves down. Intrigued by how many kids with anxiety and depression were born in an emergency c-section, I have conducted my own study and have been asking the moms that I know. Approximately 75 percent of the kids with mental issues were born in an emergency C-section.
As evidenced in my recent column about sugar, I hold some strong opinions about the sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates that saturate so much of the American diet. I remain shocked by the influence that Swedish Fish, cupcakes, soda — and especially anything made with that poison known as high fructose corn syrup — have on your mood. I have seen the devastating consequences in my kids.
British psychiatric researcher Malcolm Peet conducted a cross-cultural analysis where he found a strong link between high sugar consumption and both depression and schizophrenia. One reason for the sugar-mood connectionmay be that refined sugar, as well as anything your body processes like it (Doritos, Cheetos, Triscuits), sets off chronic inflammation in your body, which then mucks up your immune system and causes a cascade of issues you don’t want. Sugar also suppresses activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called BDNF, and those levels are low in both depression and schizophrenia.
The average American consumes between 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugar a year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 16 percent of total calories in our kids’ diets came from added sugars. That’s disgusting.
Hear me out before you roll your eyes on this one. In the last year, I’ve learned quite a bit about the critical role of our gut flora and bacteria in maintaining good mental health, and I believe it’s because ever since I started paying very close attention to my diet and taking a probiotic, I have started to feel better. Researchers at McMaster University published a study in the online edition of the journal Gastroenterology where they disrupted the normal bacteria of healthy adult mice with antibiotics. As a result, the mice became more anxious and there were changes in certain parts of the mice’s brains affecting emotion and mood.
As I read GAPS: Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD, I thought more about the times I’ve been flooded with antibiotics — like after my appendectomy — and how that affected my mood. And then I thought about the first two and half years of my son’s life. He was almost always taking an antibiotic for an ear infection until we had tubes put in. No wonder why the poor guy is not as emotionally resilient as his peers who were not born by an emergency C-section followed by two years of antibiotics.
5. Screen Time
So, instead of playing a game of kick the can with neighborhood friends like we did when I was young, kids are often by themselves, inside, on their iPads or phones playing JellyCar. An August 2013 British study found that children who spent more than four hours a day in front of computer screens or television had lower self-esteem and greater emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression.
There have been many studies that have shown the deterioration in certain brain areas due to screen activity, microstructural abnormalities in adolescents who play games on iPads, computers, or phones for more than 20 hours a week. In a study published in the European Journal of Radiology, game addicts showed significant atrophy in parts of the brain’s gray matter: the frontal lobes responsible for executive functions and the insula, related to our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others. Psychiatrist Mary G. Burke has compiled a helpful, comprehensive list of studies in her article The Impact of Screen Media on Children in Psychiatric Times. Dr. Burke concludes that “fMRI studies during and after screen media exposure reveal pronounced and specific activation patterns,” some of which are similar to those seen in drug addicts.
At my kids’ school, they introduce iPads in sixth grade, so unfortunately they have mandatory screen time. Any texting or games is on top of that, which is a problem considering a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that sitting in front of a computer for five hours a day can dramatically increase your risk of depression.
6. Broken Homes
Have you heard that divorce rates have leveled out or even started to decline in the last decade? Yeah, that’s not true, according to demographers at the University of Minnesota. Using new data from the American Community Survey, and controlling for changes in the age composition of the married population, they found there was a substantial increase in age-standardized divorce rates between 1990 and 2008. In fact, divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades among persons aged 35 years or older. Peacemaker Ministries published a paper that said that in 1935, there were 16 divorces for each 100 marriages. By 1998, the number had risen to 51 divorces per 100 marriages. Now more than a million children experience divorce each year, and more than 8 million children currently live with a divorced single parent.
Now I know there is research to support getting out of a bad marriage (for you and your kids); however, children of divorce are significantly more likely to develop depression and anxiety well into their twenties than their peers from nuclear homes. A study published in Journal of Marriage and Family found that divorce had serious consequences on the psychological well-being of children both before and after the divorce, and that the negative effects could not be attributed to the pre-divorce stress within the family.
I don’t remember ever having to worry about a scratch on my knee before swimming in the creeks nearby my home growing up. Now? I’m petrified to submerge myself into the waters of the Chesapeake Bay if I have any open wounds. I have heard too many stories about flesh-eating bacteria that leads to amputations of limbs. Of course, it’s not just the water that’s toxic. The air quality is worse. Foods are sprayed with nasty pesticides. (Read about the landmark 20-year study that found pesticides are linked to depression in farmers.) We are exposed to all kinds of poisonous substances in our cleaning products, toiletries, not to mention our tap water. In his book, The UltraMind Solution, Mark Hyman, MD, shares all kinds of case studies about people with symptoms of severe depression and anxiety that needed only to be detoxified. He, himself, was poisoned with mercury after living in Beijing, China, breathing in raw coal used to heat homes there, eating too many tuna sandwiches, and getting a mouthful of silver (or mercury) fillings.
Ah yes, stress. I couldn’t leave that off the list. No less than once a week, my husband and I discuss the problem of our kids being way too stressed out. However, when we start going through the alternatives, they don’t work either. For example, the kids have too much homework. Do we pull them from school? If I home-school them that will be much worse for their psyches. Their sports are too competitive. Do we not sign them up? Then they won’t be with their friends, because, as I said in my first point, kids don’t “hang out” today. They play club sports, where they travel 60 miles to crush another team. Stress compromises almost every biological system in your body, wearing out important organs so that you are vulnerable to mood disruptions. Constant cortisol flooding your bloodstream is bad news. But I don’t have a clue as to what to do about it.
Join the conversation “Why Are So Many Young People Depressed?” on ProjectBeyondBlue.com, the new depression community.
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I'm a Christian counselor who loves to help people get to the root of their current problems so they can live from a place of authenticity and freedom!