DR MAX THE MIND DOCTOR: Why your teenager’s brain can’t cope with adult life
Being a teenager is tough. When we think back to adolescence, most of us recoil at the horror of it all.
Raging hormones and an unsettling awareness of our burgeoning sexuality. A body that seems out of control. Uncertainty about who we are, what we want in life and where we fit in.
Throw into the mix the pressure of exams with the potential to dictate the rest of one’s life — well, who on earth would want to go through it again.
Seriously, it is unquestionably bad timing that, just as young people are contending with huge emotional and physical change, we burden them further with the curse of GCSEs.
GCSEs could not be scheduled at a worse time for teenagers because of their hormones
Neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore certainly thinks so. This week, she went so far as to suggest that from a neurological perspective, the exams should be scrapped because they come at the worst possible time in adolescent development.
While I wouldn’t predict the death of GCSEs any time soon, Professor Blakemore is right. Key parts of the teenage brain are still quite immature.
Your child might look and talk like an adult, but scans show the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully develop, and is undergoing change until well into the 20s. This part of the brain is emotional high command; the seat of impulse control, of foreseeing and judging consequences of behaviour, of initiating appropriate behaviour and inhibiting inappropriate behaviour, and of controlling our reaction to people and events.
Its relative immaturity is why teenagers behave the way they do. A teenager may understand that a particular action is wrong or dangerous, but they lack the hardwiring in their brain to properly process these thoughts in the way an adult does.
It is why youngsters make particularly good Army recruits, because the prefrontal cortex that assesses risk is still immature (and why so many have quit by their mid-20s as the risk assessment part of the brain matures). Our greater understanding of the adolescent brain has many implications; for example in debates around the age of consent or giving the vote to 16-year-olds.
Here’s one pill I love popping!
I take a multivitamin every morning — but yet another study this week tells me that I am wasting my time and my money.
Researchers found no clear benefit in taking vitamin supplements (except for vitamin D), and say that we should focus instead on improving our diet.
But isn’t that the point? While we know we should be gobbling up plenty of fruit, veg, fibre, oily fish, beans and lentils etc, all too often, our busy lifestyles intervene.
So do I feel better since I started taking a dietary supplement? The answer is a resounding yes.
In my view, the psychological power of pill-popping cannot be underestimated — and my daily multivitamin is why I feel entirely relaxed about opting for a banoffee pie instead of a banana.
I know most teenagers would be furious at the suggestion, but brain scans don’t lie. From a neurological perspective, youngsters are impaired in their judgment.
That’s why I worry about their easy access to online pornography. While an adult can view porn and, in the majority of cases, understand that this is not a blueprint for human relationships, the thinking of teenagers can be warped by this exposure.
The impact of violent video games on young brains is also a concern, while the uninhibited use of social media, posting messages and, in some cases, inappropriate pictures of themselves, should alarm every parent.
That’s the downside, but there is a positive to be taken from this. I’ve seen many teenagers with severe mental health problems who, given time, get better. Of course, mental health support helps, but really what’s happened is their neurological development has caught up and enabled them to regulate their emotions.
I’ve noticed this particularly in cases of self-harm, in which some youngsters resort to injuring themselves as a way of coping with stress or emotions that threaten to overwhelm them.
When I worked in A&E, we had one young woman who racked up more than 150 attendances. She was 17 and her forearms were covered in scars.
I eventually left that hospital, but returned a few years later. On my first night shift in A&E, I noticed that same girl in the waiting area and my heart sank: nothing had changed for her.
She recognised me, so I went over. ‘I think I’ve sprained my ankle,’ she said. ‘Oh, I assumed …’ I began. ‘No, I don’t do that now, not done it for ages,’ she said.
I asked how she’d stopped and she shrugged: ‘Don’t know, something in my head just sort of clicked.’ She gives me hope for even the most troubled teenager.
Gender gap that’s unfair to MEN…
It was only a matter of time before the gender pay gap furore hit my profession. Cue the announcement this week by the Health Secretary that there is to be a review of an apparent 15 per cent pay gap among doctors.
Let’s be sensible here. The pay scales for doctors are very clear. They are agreed nationally and are dependent on the number of years a doctor has spent in the NHS, irrespective of the speciality.
So an NHS consultant plastic surgeon earns the same pro rata as a consultant community paediatrician.
Nor is gender a factor. It’s an entirely transparent and equitable system.
That’s not to say there isn’t a pay gap. On average, women are paid less than men — but they are not being paid less for doing the same job. That’s illegal. The reality is that, on average, male doctors work longer than women and so take home a higher salary. It’s not sexism — it’s just life.
A 15-year follow-up of doctors after graduation showed that, after career breaks and part-time working are taken into account, women on average, usually because of family commitments, work 25 per cent less than their male counterparts. Put starkly, the average male medical graduate will work full-time, while the average female won’t.
There is a gender issue in the health service, but it’s not the one that’s being discussed.
More female students are accepted at medical school than male students, with a ratio of 60:40. A few institutions boast a 70 per cent female intake.
So shouldn’t we be looking at why boys are being out-performed by girls in the education system, why fewer young men are applying to, or being accepted at, medical school?
Why aren’t we trying to address the clear gender inequality that is emerging in schools?
We are letting down an entire generation of young men because of a politically loaded agenda that is entirely deaf to their needs.
It’s dopey to claim cannabis is safe
Can cannabis cure cancer? There’s not a shred of evidence to support such a claim, but that doesn’t stop the shrill pro-cannabis lobby from claiming otherwise.
Campaigners have jumped on the case of 32-year-old Tiffany Youngs, wife of England rugby star Tom, who said this week that she believes cannabis oil helped to cure her of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her claim has reignited the debate around cannabis, its alleged anti-cancer properties and, therefore, the case for decriminalising it.
But contrary to what the pro-cannabis lobby would have you believe, this is a well-researched drug. There are over 10,000 studies into its medicinal properties and we know it contains many useful compounds.
Can cannabis cure cancer? There’s not a shred of evidence to support such a claim, but that doesn’t stop the shrill pro-cannabis lobby from claiming otherwise
Just this week, researchers showed how cannabidiol, which is derived from cannabis, is effective in managing a rare, severe type of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. And another derivative, dronabinol, is used in treating nausea.
So yes, cannabis — or rather its extracted constituents — have a therapeutic value.
But let’s not forget that it also contains harmful compounds. People who smoke cannabis are at increased risk of lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases. And there are a host of mental health problems that cannabis is associated with, from anxiety to psychosis.
Hyping the medical benefits of cannabis — to the point of recklessly claiming a cure for cancer — is just a cynical attempt to push an agenda to decriminalise it for recreational use.
I only wish everyone would be honest about it.
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