Half of Depressed, Anxious Teens Recover Without Mental Health Treatment, Study Finds

Research indicates the resilience of adolescents is effective and can avoid the ineffectiveness, harms and costs of pharmacological and psychological treatments.


Citizens Commission on Human Rights, National Affairs Office

WASHINGTON, DC, July 26, 2023 — A systematic review and meta-analysis on adolescents experiencing depression and/or anxiety reveals that half of them recovered on their own, without any mental health treatment.  Researchers say the result indicates that strengthening young people’s own resilience is key to their long-term mental health.

Noting that experiencing mental distress is common in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, a team of researchers reviewed previous studies to find the recovery rate of depressed and/or anxious adolescents who dealt with their teen angst without psychiatric drugs, psychotherapy, or other specific mental health treatment.  They found that within one year, half of depressed and/or anxious teens had recovered on their own.

“The findings suggest that after 1 year, about 54% of young people with symptoms of anxiety and/or depression recover without any specific mental health treatment,” according to the study’s lead author, Anna Roach, a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London.  Due to certain limitations of the study, the researchers suggest that the true rate of recovery is likely even higher. 

This result is an indication of teens’ ability to adapt and adjust to difficulties in life, “a sign of resilience, with young people bouncing back from their experience of distress,” the researchers wrote, reporting in the online peer-reviewed British medical journal, BMJ Open.

The high rate of recovery without involvement in the mental health system challenges the growing number of programs set up to screen and refer depressed or anxious teens to mental health practitioners for further evaluation and treatment.  As the researchers put it, “the question arises as to whether [teenagers] should routinely be considered for specialised treatments or whether one should wait with such decisions for a year, by which time about 54% are likely to have recovered without treatment.”

Instead of channeling young people into the mental health system, the study calls for new approaches to mental health care, noting also that psychiatric drugs and psychotherapy are both largely ineffective and costly.

Research on safe and effective alternative mental health treatment already exists.  For example, a 2023 study found that exercise is as effective in reducing symptoms of depression as antidepressant drugs or psychotherapy, regardless of the type or intensity of the exercise or whether done in a group or not.  Similarly, a 2020 study found exercise is effective in significantly reducing the symptoms of anxiety.

Many young people already avoid mental health treatment.  A recent study found that one in three depressed young adults preferred self-reliance instead of getting mental health treatment.  One in four cited concerns about being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility or having to take psychiatric drugs, while one in seven did not think mental health treatment would help them.

The most widely prescribed psychiatric drugs in the U.S. are antidepressants.  A recent study, published in World Psychiatry, advises doctors not to prescribe antidepressants as first-line treatment for most depressed patients because the benefit of the drugs is so small that it may not be clinically significant, and the drugs carry the risk of significant side effects.  Instead, the researchers suggest prescribing non-drug approaches first for the patients.

Some 45 million Americans are currently taking one or more antidepressants, including 5.7 million children and young adults under the age of 25, for whom the FDA requires a warning on the drug’s prescribing information of the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Other adverse effects of antidepressants include weight gain, nausea, insomnia, agitation, emotional blunting and sexual dysfunction.  One recent study found that half of antidepressant users experience sexual problems, which can strain their relationships and lead to a worsening of their depression.   

Doctors have no clear guidance for tapering or discontinuing antidepressants, leaving their patients at greater risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms that for many will be severe and incapacitating. 

A recent study found that more than 56% of people who attempt to come off antidepressants experience withdrawal effects, with nearly half (46%) of them rating the symptoms as ‘severe.’”

More fundamentally, a landmark 2022 study questioned the prescribing of antidepressants at all, after finding the common reason for taking them – to correct a chemical imbalance in the brain – had no scientific basis.

“These studies all point to the desperate need for a drastic overhaul of the badly broken U.S. mental health system, which relies on the psychiatric drugs and practices that scientific research has found ineffective and harmful,” says Anne Goedeke, president of the National Affairs Office of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.

WARNING: Anyone wishing to discontinue or change the dose of an antidepressant or other psychiatric drug is cautioned to do so only under the supervision of a physician because of potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

CCHR recommends a complete physical examination with lab tests, nutritional and allergy screenings, and a review of all current medications to identify any physical causes of depression, anxiety, or other unwanted mental and behavioral symptoms, which might otherwise be misdiagnosed and incorrectly treated as a psychiatric disorder.

The Citizens Commission on Human Rights was co-founded in 1969 by members of the Church of Scientology and the late psychiatrist and humanitarian Thomas Szasz, M.D., recognized by many academics as modern psychiatry’s most authoritative critic, to eradicate abuses and restore human rights and dignity to the field of mental health.  CCHR has been instrumental in obtaining 228 laws against psychiatric abuse and violations of human rights worldwide.

The CCHR National Affairs Office in Washington, DC, has advocated for mental health rights and protections at the state and federal level.  The CCHR traveling exhibit, which has toured 441 major cities worldwide and educated over 800,000 people on the history to the present day of abusive and racist psychiatric practices, has been displayed at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, and at other locations.

Anne Goedeke
Citizens Commission on Human Rights, National Affairs Office

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