Saturday, November 11, 2006

Childhood depression, grasping the nettle and sex on the brain.

I read with interest this week all the stuff in the papers about the four year old girl from Sunderland who has been diagnosed as suffering from depression. Having spoken to different people about it some seem to have difficulty in accepting that it could be a real condition. Is it not just mood swings or a young child acting up ? I was surprised that it even reached the national news to be honest. Five years ago I wrote a series of articles about the subject of childhood depression for a number of different publications. In some cases I even encountered families who had 2 and 3 year olds who were exhibiting all the classical signs of depression. Speaking to specialists in the field I soon learnt that it wasn't that unusual a diagnosis. Not everyday by any means, but certainly not unheard of. There's nothing particularly remarkable about the Sunderland girl and I'm presuming the fact her condition developed partly in reaction to not getting into the school of her choice has made it more newsworthy.
Mental health issues do appear to be gaining more coverage of late which has to be healthy, although in attitudinal terms we still have a long way to go. In terms of public funding it remains something of a cinderella issue. Economically mental health problems cost us millions every year through lost days at work, social security benefits and more intangibly the underuse of talent. Considering that so large a percentage of the population will suffer at some time from a mental health problem the very ordinariness of mental health conditions can sometimes be lost. The chances are that on your street there may be a couple of people who have or who are struggling, perhaps quite secretly and anonymously to cope with a debilitating problem. Too often lack of therapeutic and counselling services have left GPs with little option but to prescribe drugs when perhaps they would like to be able to offer something a bit more holistic. In many cases drugs are vital and necessary, but with people suffering from milder, yet still limiting depression they can be something of a sticking plaster.
I've written quite a bit over the years about mental health issues and have in a bit of a scatter gun fashion got to learn about what's going on in the heads of people suffering from different conditions. The brain is just such an amazing and mysterious piece of kit. I find how it works absolutely fascinating and I've long harboured ideas about doing some more systematic study into its workings. I'm currently going through a period when I seem to be finally grasping the nettle with lots of different ideas that I've long had partially formed somewhere at the back of my head. So I've enrolled on a psychology course with the Open University which begins in February. It'll be good to stretch myself in an area that is outside of my comfort zone and will I'm sure equip me better in various aspects of my writing.
The web is full of personality type tests, some frivolous and a bit daft, others more detailed and based on proper psychological theory. One that you might find interesting is the BBC's Brain Sex test, it takes a while to complete but it's results can be quite enlightening (and surprising). The science that lies behind it essentially says that there are two types of brain. One largely possessed by women that is better at empathy and complex emotions, the other largely possessed by men which is better at systemizing , spatial awareness and planning. This is of course a vast simplification of a very complex area. There are countless shades of grey, subtleties and provisos, but for the sake of brevity I'm sure you get my general drift. Your brain sex does not necessarily match your biological sex but in the majority of cases it will. They also run in a spectrum with the pronounced male brain being one of the likely causes of autism, or that should be the complex of behaviours exhibited by someone with an extreme male brain get classified as a condition called autism. The extreme female brain would produce someone highly sensitive perhaps to the point of being unable to function in the world.
Have a go at the tests and see where you fit in, then I might tell you where I came on the spectrum ;-)


Malcolm said...

A fascinating post - although I'm quite aware of the debilitating effects of depression, i wasn't really aware of it in such young children. Problem is that SSRI's are such good masking tools that the underlying causes tend to be ignored. A more holistic approach costs more (financially) to administer but I feel it would be of much more long-term benefit.

Martyn said...

Me and Rach often have discussions about this, with her working in the field. I've always tried to steer clear of anything chemical and used to be quite fundamentalist about it, she regularly works with people who need the stabilising effect of SSRI's before they can make any progress. I've accepted her point now and we're both agreed on the value of talking therapies over an extended period to help get to the bottom of deep rooted patterns of behaviour. Problem is the NHS services of this kind are heavily oversubscribed with massive waiting lists. Private counselling and therapy can be excellent but even at the cheaper end (£25 an hour) is out of the reach of many people. There is loads of government commissioned research knocking around Whitehall pointing out that a massive growth in the number of counsellors, psychotherapists and counselling psychologists, with drop-in centres being in every medium sized town, would help no end. In terms of economic productivity if nothing else it would save us millions in sick pay and lost time at the workplace. With even Cameron's Tories talking up this kind of thing now hopefully a political consensus can be reached. Mental health is too often seen as an emergency service and nothing else and until that attitude changes then I don't think we'll see much progress.

Anonymous said...

Hi Martyn, tried the test and came out halfway to the average for females, not that that particularly worried me. After all, I did score 2/20 for empathy! Wife is reassuringly average female.
Fascinating thing is, since blogging the test, I've been being visited by sweaty-palmed arabs all day looking for naughtiness - beware of using the word s*x in your blog.
The low empathy score enables me to avoid commenting on anything else you said on your post, apart from acknowledging an excellent essay on the issues.

Martyn said...

Hi Pat

I come in just on the female side of the scale. My brain is quite androgynous by all accounts.

I really don't get on with flat-pack furniture, but can read moods pretty well !