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Teenagers hands holding antidepressant pills

Teenagers who struggle with substance misuse are sometimes affected by co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. In these cases, it is important for each disorder to be addressed effectively. Antidepressants are one option that can help aid teens who are struggling with substance use and co-occurring disorders.

There are a few different types of antidepressants, and there are also some risks involved with using these medications. It’s important to understand how each one works as well as what risks they can create.

Mental Health Issues in Teens

Anxiety and depression are particularly common teenage mental health issues. Teen mental health statistics indicate that adolescent depression rates rose 47% for boys and 65% for girls between 2013 and 2016. Anxiety rates are also high among teenagers, and this anxiety is largely driven by a combination of social pressures and critical changes that occur in the brain during adolescence.

Teen Mental Health and Addiction

Addiction can sometimes accompany mental illness in teens. Teen addiction is serious, as substance use can negatively impact an adolescent’s developing mind.

Teen addiction and mental illness often occur together because teen coping styles may involve partaking in dangerous or risky activities, such as using drugs. This can lead to addiction, and antidepressants are one way for teens to begin the path toward treatment.

How Antidepressants Work

Antidepressants work by altering levels of brain chemicals called monoamine neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters include serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Teen mental health treatment, particularly for disorders like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, often involves the use of psychiatric medications.

Common Antidepressants for Teens

Antidepressant medications are often used to treat anxiety and mood disorders in teens. There are several types of antidepressants that physicians can prescribe to patients. Each type of antidepressant drug has a unique mechanism of action within the brain. Types of antidepressants include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI): SSRIs are one of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants for teenagers. These drugs block the reabsorption of serotonin back into brain cells, which increases the overall levels of serotonin available within the brain. One of the most common SSRIs for teens is Prozac (fluoxetine), which is the only antidepressant approved by the Federal Drug and Administration for the treatment of depression.
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI): Anxiety and depression in adolescence are also treated with SNRIs. SNRIs work by blocking the reuptake of both serotonin and norepinephrine. They are often prescribed when someone does not respond to SSRI treatment. Common SNRI medications include Strattera (atomoxetine) and Cymbalta (duloxetine).
  • Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRI): Depression medication for teens can also include atypical antidepressants like NDRIs. NDRI antidepressants work by blocking norepinephrine and dopamine transporters, which increases the amount of norepinephrine and dopamine available.

Benefits of Antidepressants

The effectiveness of antidepressant treatment varies from person to person. Each teen is going to respond to medication differently. Some believe that teens with mood or anxiety disorders are actually struggling with a chemical imbalance. This has created some skepticism about whether increasing monoamine levels truly helps with these disorders.

Antidepressants do not work immediately, which is another factor that makes some believe that these medications don’t work at all. It usually takes about four to six weeks before a person begins to feel the therapeutic benefits of an antidepressant drug. This is because it takes a few weeks for the brain to adapt to the changes caused by antidepressants.

Though most antidepressants take some time to begin working, there are benefits to taking them. Namely, the benefits of depressants include elevating mood and relieving anxiety in teens.

Risks of Antidepressants

While antidepressants can be beneficial in helping teens cope with depression, anxiety, and co-occurring substance use disorders, there are some potential negative side effects. The side effects of antidepressants in teenagers include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Agitation
  • Sedation
  • Weight changes
  • Insomnia
  • Sexual dysfunction

More serious side effects can also occur, such as suicidal thoughts and behavior. An analysis of available data suggests that teen antidepressant use can create an increased risk of suicidal ideations and attempts.

Antidepressants and the Teenage Brain

The teenage years are an important period of development and growth for the adolescent brain. However, the effects of antidepressants on the teenage brain are not well understood. One risk of antidepressants is that using too much of a serotonin-altering drug, such as an SSRI, can cause a condition called serotonin syndrome.

Serotonin syndrome symptoms range from mild to severe and can include:

  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Dilated pupils
  • Headache
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased body temperature
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tremors
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive sweating

Serotonin syndrome is most likely to occur when a teen first starts taking their medication. However, it can also occur if a teen on antidepressants misuses drugs that affect serotonin levels, such as ecstasy.

When someone stops taking antidepressants, withdrawal symptoms may occur. Antidepressant withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headache

Natural Alternatives to Antidepressants

The best alternatives to antidepressants are typically behavioral therapies. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is very effective for a variety of teen mental health disorders. CBT aims to help people regulate their emotions through mindfulness and acceptance techniques. Other alternatives to antidepressants can include other forms of individual or group therapies. Exercise and adequate sleep are also important components of teen health and wellness.

If your teen is struggling with a substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health condition, Next Generation Village can help. Our teen-focused recovery facility has a variety of treatment programs that can suit your child’s needs and provide them with a better path for the future. Contact us today to learn more about options that can work well for your situation.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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