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Preschoolers' depression can linger; adults opt for meds

August 3, 2009 |  5:05 pm

The depression, and antidepressant, news just keeps coming. Today, we have two new studies expanding what we know about the condition in preschoolers and in adults; the former is considerably less well-charted territory.

Playground Both studies were published in the August issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, but first let's look at the one on preschoolers.

Doctors and researchers have been a bit fuzzy on the course of depression in people younger than 6. They're young, they have short attention spans ... maybe the condition is fleeting, maybe they will just grow out of it. That isn't necessarily the case.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis followed 306 children ages 3 to 6 for 24 months and found that the lives of the naive and inexperienced aren't all Play-Doh and coloring books, and depression doesn't necessarily end when Susie gives back the doll.

That depression can last. Children who were depressed at the beginning of the study were four times more likely to be depressed 12 or 24 months later than children who weren't depressed at the beginning of the study. Also, those who were chronically depressed over the course of the study were often the ones who were most severely depressed at the beginning.

The abstract states: "Preschool depression, similar to childhood depression, is not a developmentally transient syndrome, but rather shows chronicity and/or recurrence."

The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, concludes that earlier interventions may be necessary if we want to more effectively treat childhood depression.

Fluoxetine Now for the adults.

Even as researchers ponder the course of depression in the young, depressed grownups are putting their faith in drugs. Antidepressants, to be exact. Americans like them very much.

A new study charts just how much. Setting the tone, the abstract begins: "Antidepressants have recently become the most commonly prescribed class of medications in the United States."

Researchers at Columbia University in New York analyzed 1996 and 2005 data on people age 6 and older who had been prescribed at least one antidepressant. Among their findings:

* The number of people taking an antidepressant rose from 13.3 million in 1996 to 27 million in 2005.

* All demographic groups but African Americans significantly increased their use of the drugs.

* Hispanic use did increase, but was still relatively low compared to that in most groups.

* The percentage of depression patients receiving antipsychotic medications increased. (Here's a recent analysis of that trend from staff writer Melissa Healy. The issue isn't as straightforward as you might think.)

* The percentage of depression patients receiving psychotherapy decreased. Surprise.

The study  -- here's the abstract -- was funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and by the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.

Both these studies come on the heels of The Times' most recent Health section, which offers an overview of some of the bigger issues in depression treatment today. Like it or not, that depression treatment relies heavily on medications.

We explored how to choose the most appropriate medication, how to stop medication, whether or not depression is overdiagnosed, the pros and cons of screening teenagers and the effectiveness of exercise in treating depression.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo (top): Childhood may be seem synonymous with carefree play; it isn't. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Photo (bottom): Fluoxetine, more commonly known as Prozac, is frequently prescribed to treat depression. Credit: Associated Press