The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Thursday, September 24, 2015 (Volume 4: Issue: 26)

The Topic: Depressed, Violent Teens

The News Story: Study Finds Young People On Antidepressants More Prone to Violence 

The New Research: Distressed Minds, Diseased Bodies—Divorced Parents

The News Story: Study Finds Young People On Antidepressants More Prone to Violence

In the wake of shootings such as those at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and, most recently, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, interest in the causes of such violent behavior in young people is at an all-time high. News sources this week reported on a study that may shed some light on such violence. “Young people taking antidepressants such as Prozac and Seroxat,” reports Reuters, “are significantly more likely to commit violent crimes when they are on the medication,” though changing the dosage seems to mitigate that risk.

The Swedish study examined outcomes for people aged 15-24 prescribed a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI). The results showed that “While in most age groups the likelihood of criminal violence was not significantly different whether people were taking SSRIs or not, for 15-24 year-olds there was a very substantial increase – 43% – in their risk of committing violent crime while on the medication.” The researcher highlighted that “the findings raised several questions and should be investigated further before any changes were recommended on prescribing SSRIs,” as it is “possible that young people taking lower doses of antidepressants were not being ‘fully treated’ for their mental disorder.”

But what the media coverage on this study fails to consider is which young people are at an increased risk of needing such drugs in the first place. New research indicates that those young people who have experienced a parental divorce are the most disadvantaged of all in both physical and mental health.

(Source: Reuters, “Study Finds Young People on Antidepressants More Prone to Violence,” September 15, 2015.)


The New Research: Distressed Minds, Diseased Bodies—Divorced Parents

As though they did not face a daunting challenge dealing with sicknesses with identifiable physical causes, physicians working with adolescents must also treat an alarming number of psychosomatic illnesses—that is, illnesses triggered by mental or emotional stress. And a new study out of Sweden suggests that reducing that number may be difficult so long as a large percentage of children live with the consequences of parental divorce.

Gauging the impact on psychosomatic illness of parental divorce and then of different kinds of custody arrangements was the primary intent of the authors of the new study—scholars affiliated with Linköping University and Stockholm University. Of particular interest to the researchers was Joint Physical Custody (JPC), a custody arrangement in which the children of divorce “live equally much in their parent's respective homes.” Involving just 1-2% of Swedish children with divorced parents in the mid-1980s, JPC now involves 30-40% of such children.

Alas, the new study out of Sweden indicates that while Joint Physical Custody does seem to reduce the distress incident to parental divorce, it hardly eliminates it. The researchers pore over a large national data set to assess the incidence of psychosomatic illness among Swedish adolescents in intact families and among peers whose parents’ divorce has put them either in Joint Physical Custody or in the more traditional single-parent custody. More specifically, the researchers parse data collected in 2009 from 147,839 Swedish children between the ages of 12 and 15.  

A clear pattern emerges in these data: “Children in joint physical custody suffered from less psychosomatic problems than those living mostly or only with one parent but reported more symptoms than those in nuclear families.” The particular psychosomatic problems in view include headaches, stomachaches, sleeping problems, dizziness, and sadness. But Joint Physical Custody only mitigates the harmful effects of parental divorce.  It does not make them disappear.  Regardless of custody arrangement, Swedish children with divorced parents “experience more psychosomatic problems than those in nuclear families.”  

(Source: Bryce J. Christensen, forthcoming in “New Research,” The Family in America, Fall 2015, Vol. 29 Number 4. Study: Malin Bergström et al., “Fifty Moves a Year: Is There an Association between Joint Physical Custody and Psychosomatic Problems in Children?”  Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 69.8 [2015]: 769-774.)