Overmedicalization of young people’s distress is undermining and disempowering families

This article by Emma Fergusson, Shona Reed-Purvis and Lucy Foulkes has been published in Nature. It begins:

Cases of mild or transient distress in young people are increasingly viewed as problems that require medical intervention. As CAMHS clinicians, we argue that this overmedicalization undermines the value of social support within the family and community, and funding cuts to nonmedical support services have only compounded the problem.

In the past 5 years, referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in England have more than doubled, partly owing to the increase in rates of mental health problems in this population1,2. There are many young people who need better access to medical services and support. However, we argue here that an additional contributing factor to increased referrals is ‘overmedicalization’, the process by which some problems are inappropriately considered to be illnesses requiring medical diagnoses and treatment3. In other words, we argue that some young people’s emotional and behavioral difficulties are now too readily being viewed as problems that require (and require only) medical intervention, typically in the form of assessment and one-to-one treatment from a mental health professional. We write as a CAMHS consultant psychiatrist (E.F.), CAMHS principal family therapist (S.R.P.) and academic psychologist (L.F.). In this Comment, we outline potential consequences of this overmedicalization, drawing on fictionalized case studies based on our (E.F. and S.R.P.) clinical observations. We end by considering how to reduce the overmedicalization of young people’s distress …”

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