Health

Prescriptions of psychiatric drugs to young children on the decline

The number of children prescribed anti-psychotics, stimulants and antidepressants spiked in the mid-2000s, then dropped

Critics have accused pharmaceutical companies of exploiting children for profit.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Psychiatric medications were being prescribed less often in very young children by the end of the last decade, a new study says.

Researchers have found the percentage of children using anti-psychotics, stimulants and antidepressants spiked in the mid-2000s but leveled off from 2006 to 2009.

"It's good to get a gauge on what we're doing with psychotropic medications in this age group, because we really don't know what these medications do to the developing brain," Dr. Tanya Froehlich, the study's senior author from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, told Reuters.

According to the study published in the journal Pediatrics, between 1994 and 1997, 1 percent of preschoolers were prescribed psychotropic prescriptions. That rate jumped to a high of about 1.5 percent between 2002 and 2005 and then returned to 1 percent between 2006 and 2009.

For the study, the researchers pulled national data from 1994 to 2009 on about 43,500 doctors' visits for kids aged two to five.

The decrease occurred even though more children were being diagnosed with behavioral disorders throughout the study period. Researchers suggest the explanation may be due to an increased awareness of possible side effects from these types of medications.

The Pediatrics study comes a little over a month after the Wall Street Journal reported that Department of Health and Human Services officials have launched a review of the use of antipsychotic drugs on children — ages 17 and under — in the Medicaid system. The probe applies to a newer class of antipsychotic drugs known as "atypicals," including Abilify, which is used to treat depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and is the nation's No. 1 prescription drug by sales. 

The number of people under age 20 receiving Medicaid-funded prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs tripled between 1999 and 2008.

Critics of drug use for children diagnosed with behavioral and neurobiological disorders say there is nothing wrong with the children, and they shouldn't be drugged. 

"We have lost track of what childhood is about, of what parenthood and teaching is about. We now think it's about having good quiet children who make it easy for us to go to work. It's about having submissive children who will sit in a boring classroom," Dr. Peter Breggin, psychiatrist and author of Talking Back to Ritalin said in a PBS interview.

"There are no miracle drugs. Speed — these drugs are forms of speed — don't improve human life. ... And if you want less of a child, these drugs are very effective. These parents have been lied to."

Breggin argues that some children's symptoms simply fit into a checklist for attention deficit disorder that consists of behaviors teachers and parents find challenging.

In 2004 the Food and Drug Administration issued a strong warning about a link between antidepressant use among children and suicide risk.

Diabetes, obesity and a number of other conditions have also been linked to the use of anti-psychotics among children.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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