Can Yoga Help Depression in Kids?

The saddest statistic we’ve heard in a long time is this: children are the fastest growing market for antidepressants.

Even though a mounting body of evidence suggests alternative treatments to combat depression, including yoga and regular exercise, offer an effective way to prevent or even treat the condition, more and more young people are prescribed antidepressants each day. This despite the fact that antidepressants have been shown to increase suicide risk among adolescents and against the advice of many doctors, including Dr. Thomas Newman professor at University of California SF, who strongly cautions against the risk of SSRI antidepressants for youth.

Depression is a serious illness, and adressing the condition with treatment is vital. However, treating depression in young people comes with an extra level of complexity. Because the adolescent brain physiology differs from that of mature adults, children’s brains respond to antidepressants differently—and in some cases, fatally.

In October of 2004, the FDA publicly recognized the risk of treating young people with antidepressants by mandating a “black box” warning, the highest level of warning possible, on antidepressant medication. The warning includes the statement: “Antidepressant medicines may increase suicidal thoughts or actions in some children, teenagers, and young adults when the medicine is first started.”

Scientists attribute the increased risk of anti-depressant-linked suicide in young people to the way the drugs interact with the maturing brain. In adults, depression is linked with a shrunken hippocampus and high levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone. Most antidepressants work to remedy these issues, decreasing cortisol and restoring the hippocampus. In young people, however, elevated cortisol levels don’t usually accompany depression, nor does hippocampus reduction. Scientists suspect that, due to this, the brain-modifying effects of antidepressants in youth are not only often ineffective, but in fact harmful.

Although we still have a lot to learn about how antidepressants affect maturing brains, we know enough that doctors have begun looking more and more into alternative depression cures for children, including the use of yoga for depression.

In a growing number of studies, yoga for depression has been shown to not only help prevent the illness, but to actually combat depression. For example, in one New Hampshire Hospital study, conducted with 113 psychiatric inpatients, researchers found that those who participated in a yoga program for depression displayed improvement in all five negative emotion factors tested by the Profile of Mood States (POMS). Factors included tension/anxiety, depression/dejection, anger/hostility, fatigue/inertia, and confusion/bewilderment.

More and more, yoga is being offered as an effective therapy for depression for troubled or depressed kids or children with special needs. Disadvantaged kids at the Pioneer School in Portland, Oregon are experiencing the benefits of yoga therapy, as are youth in psychiatric residential treatment programs. In inner city schools, yoga for kids is also used to help young adults deal with stress.

Unlike conventional prescription medication, yoga works to release the stored-up physiological impressions of past traumas. Psychobiologists tell us how strong emotional impressions, even once forgotten on the conscious level, can be stored in our bodies for years to come, influencing the way we feel and how see the world. By working on the level of the body as well as the mind, yoga can unknot these subconscious stresses that color our outlook. Practicing yoga for depression also helps the brain produce neurochemicals that inspire a positive mood and sense of well-being.  

Given the high risk of side effects from antidepressants, one may only hope that more doctors and health professionals will begin to look into the potential of using yoga as therapy to combat depression in kids, to give them a safe and effective way to help combat the heavy burden of hopelessness and inertia that all-too-often accompany depression in youth.