The Return of Mother’s Little Helper . . .


This week Allen E. Ivey (the creator of the microcounseling approach) sent me a link to an article claiming that exercise is better for long-term brain functioning than medications. He was “venting” because he thinks this is not “new” information and instead constitutes basic common sense that everyone should embrace. The fact that exercise is good for neurological development and functioning is obvious and it can be frustrating to see the media acting surprised over and over again that life experiences—including counseling and psychotherapy—improves health, life satisfaction, and brain functioning.

Dr. Ivey’s comments and the article he sent reminded me of an unpublished piece I wrote a few years ago. It was a sarcastic commentary on a recent (at the time) publication touting the efficacy of antidepressants in treating depressive symptoms in mothers.

Here’s the piece. Sarcasm included.

The Return of Mother’s Little Helper

            Mother’s little helper is back.

            In a recent landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a prestigious group of researchers reported that children with depression improved or recovered when their depressed mothers became less depressed. The researchers were surprised and optimistic that an environmental change—mothers becoming less depressed—could directly help children whom they thought had biological depression. This is an important finding, especially given concerns about prescribing psychotropic medicines directly to children.

            Having closely followed pharmaceutical research in child psychiatry, I’m always skeptical about landmark studies and promising new drugs, but try to stay balanced and hopeful. When I mentioned the research results to my graduate students in counseling and social work, all of whom happened to be women, they felt no need for balance or hope. They responded in unison.

            “No duh. Obviously children will do better if their mothers aren’t depressed. Who needs a study to tell you that?”

            I felt instantly defensive for pharmaceutical researchers everywhere. Okay, maybe the study demonstrated the obvious, but helping children be less depressed is clearly a good thing.

            My students weren’t convinced. They asked, “What treatment did the mothers’ get?”

            “Mostly they got Celexa.” Celexa is very similar to Prozac. They’re both classified as ‘SSRIs,’ meaning they selectively focus on making serotonin more plentiful in crucial brain regions.

            My cynical students pressed on: “Did the makers of Celexa fund the study?”

            “No,” I responded. “Forest Laboratories makes Celexa, but the study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.” I felt redeemed; the study was objective.

            “How many of the authors were paid by Forest Laboratories?”

            I happened to have the article with me, so I looked at the back page where financial disclosures are conveniently listed—in very small print. I squinted my way through: “Only 3 authors name Forest Laboratories as giving them money. And Forest Laboratories is thanked in the fine print for supplying all the medication for free.”

            Actually, that wasn’t too bad. There were 15 coauthors on the study; only 20% were linked to Forest Laboratories.

            But my picky students wanted to know about the numbers, so I explained that 151 mothers started the study, but 37 (24.5%) dropped out before three months. Overall, 38 of the 114 remaining mothers recovered from their depressive condition and another 16 improved somewhat. The authors report an overall response rate of 47%.

            A student pecked at her calculator and declared. “No way! Fifty-four of 151 isn’t 47%, it’s 36%; they’re either lying, cheating, or very bad at arithmetic.”

            “How about the kids,” another asked.  “How many of them got better?”

            “Well, it’s complex and hard to say, but overall the researchers report that, of 105 kids, 9 were significantly affected during the study, 4 in a positive direction and 5 in a negative direction.”

            The students mumbled and grumbled. “Are you kidding? That’s not much improvement.” They went on to rant a bit about never knowing a depressed, sleep-deprived mother—including themselves—who looked forward to 18 hours of screeching children and smelly diapers? One student, now a grandmother, noted that Valium (the original mother’s little helper) was the most prescribed drug in the U.S. from 1969-1982 and such a big pharmaceutical success that it inspired a Rolling Stones song. Unfortunately, Valium turned out to be terribly addictive, but now apparently, there’s Celexa, Prozac, and other options for overwhelmed mothers.

            After a few more stories, my students asked, “What were the study’s conclusions?”

            I read aloud: “. . . these findings suggest that it is important to provide vigorous treatment to mothers if they are depressed.”

            Throughout the room, eyes began to roll.

            “That’s a big surprise. They want depressed moms to feel guilty if they don’t take antidepressants. That’s what they mean by ‘vigorous treatment.’ As if a hard life is made better by serotonin? How much did they spend on that study anyway?”

            “I really don’t know,” I answered.  “Maybe half a million?”

            The student with the calculator pecked away again: “They should use that money to do a study on something that might really help depressed mothers.”

            “Like what?” I asked.

            “Like maybe a study on the effectiveness of splitting half a million among 114 moms—that’s over $4,300 each. They could just give them the money, or pay for some counseling and parenting consultations, or health club memberships, or childcare, or massages, or vocational training. Better yet, the researchers could use the money to train fathers to hang around the house and be helpful, rather than lying around watching sports and reading Penthouse.”

            At that point I decided class was over. I’d learned about as much as I could handle for one day.

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4 thoughts on “The Return of Mother’s Little Helper . . .”

  1. John, I really like the way you used your classroom conversation with students to discuss larger issues. It was a very creative and effective way of conveying different perspectives. I also appreciate the sarcasm. I’m looking forward to reading future posts.

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