Kids on drugs
By Lawrence H. Diller, M.D.
March 9, 2000
published at:

Kids on drugs
A behavioral pediatrician questions the wisdom of medicating our children.

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By Lawrence H. Diller, M.D.

March 9, 2000 | I've practiced behavioral pediatrics since 1978 in Walnut Creek, Calif., an affluent suburb of San Francisco. I have evaluated and treated more than 2,000 children who struggle with behavior and performance at home or at school. Last year alone, I wrote more than 700 prescriptions for Ritalin or a similar stimulant. I am not against prescribing psychiatric medication to children.

But I've become increasingly uneasy with the role I play and the readiness of families and doctors to medicate children.

I recently obtained some information from the National Disease and Therapeutic Index of IMS Health that adds to my uneasiness about the number of children taking psychiatric drugs in the United States.

IMS Health is to drug companies what the A.C. Nielsen company is to television networks. The pharmaceutical industry relies on it to report on the latest trends in medication usage. The company recently surveyed changes in doctors' use of psychiatric drugs on children between 1995 and 1999 and found stimulant drug use is up 23 percent; the use of Prozac-like drugs for children under 18 is up 74 percent; in the 7-12 age group it's up 151 percent; for kids 6 and under it's up a surprising 580 percent. For children under 18, the use of mood stabilizers other than lithium is up 40-fold, or 4,000 percent and the use of new antipsychotic medications such as Risperdal has grown nearly 300 percent.

Approximately 5 million American children take a psychiatric drug today. Based on production/use quotas maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration and national physician practice surveys, it's possible to say with confidence that nearly 4 million children took the stimulant drug Ritalin, or its equivalent, in 1998.

Stimulants such as Ritalin have been used for more than 60 years to treat hyperactivity and inattentiveness in children. Over the past 10 years, however, psychiatric drug use for children has broadened considerably. There are more drugs and they are being used for more purposes. Ritalin is now prescribed for children as young as 2 and 3. A recent Michigan survey of Medicaid children found a few hundred toddlers taking stimulants and other psychiatric drugs. A study released two weeks ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed this trend in children of privately insured families.

Medicines originally developed and tested to treat depression in adults, such as the well-known Prozac (now in liquid form for easy pediatric administration), Paxil and Zoloft, but also Wellbutrin, Effexor and Serzone, are now being employed for a wide range of children's behavioral problems. Medications originally developed to treat blood pressure, such as clonidine (Catapress) and its longer-acting relative, Tenex, are also being used for behavioral management.

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Pierre, 8-year-old Bobby's father, pleaded with me to evaluate his son. Bobby was on three different psychiatric medications. Pierre and Bobby's mother, Carol, had bitterly divorced and had been fighting since Bobby was 2. Bobby had had problems at school since kindergarten. Teachers described him as distractible, hyperactive, slow to learn and with few friends.

But his behavior at home, especially with his mother, posed the biggest headaches. He defied Carol and flew into violent rages, hitting and trying to bite her. Time outs were ineffective because he would either escape from his room or completely trash it.

Pierre admitted that he had seen this kind of behavior from Bobby only three or four times over the past three years. But at Carol's, Bobby had major temper tantrums at least weekly. Carol took Bobby to a child therapist when he was 4. The therapist thought Bobby might have "ADD" -- attention deficit disorder or, properly, ADHD (H for hyperactivity). She also thought he was depressed because of the divorce. Weekly play-therapy sessions for Bobby continued for three years and Carol sometimes got advice from the therapist on how to handle Bobby.

Pierre only met the therapist once. He acknowledged he'd never been a big fan of therapy and questioned its value. Carol had been a psychiatric patient for much of their 17-year marriage. She suffered from serious bouts of depression and took Prozac, the well-known antidepressant, and Ativan, a medication for anxiety much like Valium.

Bobby's pediatrician started him at age 5 on Ritalin, the best-known stimulant for ADHD, because the boy kept getting up from circle time and twice ran out of the classroom at school. Later he was switched to a very similar stimulant medication, Dexedrine. Bobby's acting out and impulsiveness continued, so Carol took him to a child psychiatrist who added the drug Wellbutrin to his regimen, thinking that Bobby's irritability might be a sign of depression. (Wellbutrin has been used primarily to treat depression in adults, but has also been employed for a variety of other problems from anorexia nervosa to stopping smoking.) The Wellbutrin did not make much of a difference and after two months was stopped.

Bobby's problem persisted. At Carol's his bedtime would begin at 8:30 and at 11 Bobby was still up, getting out of bed, pestering his mother for water or food and driving her "crazy." Another medication, Anafranil, was prescribed to help him fall asleep. (Anafranil was originally used in adult depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, a condition of unwanted recurrent thoughts and compulsive behaviors like repetitive hand washing. But it often was too sedating for most people to tolerate.) Bobby fell asleep faster when he took this pill. Pierre, who in general had fewer problems with Bobby, only occasionally gave him this medication.

Bobby was 7 when Carol took him to a private psychiatric clinic well known for its controversial use of brain scans for psychiatric diagnosis and its liberal use of psychoactive medications. Bobby, now getting bigger, had stabbed another child with a pencil. No brain scan was done but the psychiatrist said that Bobby suffered from bipolar disorder, the current name for manic depression, and should take yet another drug. This fifth medication, Neurontin, originally approved as an anticonvulsant, more recently had been categorized felicitously as a "mood stabilizer." The psychiatrist said this medication would help Bobby control his episodes of rage and prevent a further worsening of his symptoms.

When I first met Bobby he took Dexedrine in the morning, Neurontin three times a day and Anafranil at night only before bedtime. He took 12 pills a day when he stayed with his mother. At his father's, he usually skipped the Dexedrine and Anafranil, especially on weekends. Pierre was afraid to stop the Neurontin because he had been told that Bobby might experience headache and irritability if that medication were abruptly discontinued.

Bobby was a very unhappy, angry boy caught in a web of strained emotions and loyalties between his parents. He was not an easy child to raise, especially for his mother, who had her own problems with depression. Bobby's story is disturbing not for its uniqueness but for how it represents a growing trend in the U.S. -- young children are being given essentially untested and potentially dangerous psychotropic drugs alone and in combination in greater volume than ever before.

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Diagnosing bipolar disorder in children as young as 3 has become the latest rage. It justifies using a host of meds to treat very difficult-to-manage, unhappy children. The old-line drug, lithium, has been replaced by newer, untested (in children) mood stabilizers like Neurontin or Depakote as a first-choice intervention for pediatric "manic depression." Finally, a new class of anti-psychotic medications -- the most popular these days is Risperdal -- is heralded as the ultimately effective treatment for a number of diagnoses whose common features are not hallucinations or psychosis, but severe acting-out behaviors.

No one knows precisely how many children are taking these non-stimulant medications. The most recent survey of physicians' practices had 1.5 million children taking an anti-depressant in 1996. Most were teenagers (girls are the majority), but more than 200,000 children under 12 are also prescribed an antidepressant. Other data tells us that rates of antidepressant use since 1996 continue to rise. For example, 150,000 prescriptions for clonidine were written for children in 1996. More than 100,000 children take "mood-stabilizing" drugs for purported bipolar disorder. Again, most are teens (here boys predominate) but it's being advised that children as young as 3 take these drugs. More than 200,000 children receive anti-psychotic medications, mostly to control unruly behavior rather than to treat hallucinations or other symptoms of schizophrenia.

The number of children combining two or more psychoactive drugs is unknown. Combined pharmacotherapy (known pejoratively as polypharmacy) has been strongly endorsed by leading research groups as the sensible approach to treating the co-morbid, or multiple occurring, diagnoses common in "high problem resistant behavior" children. Some doctors call it prescribing by "symptom chasing."

No other society prescribes psychoactive medications to children the way we do. We use 80 percent of the world's stimulants such as Ritalin. Only Canada comes close to our rates, using half, per capita, the amounts we do. Europe and industrialized Asia use one-10th of what we do. Psychiatrists in those countries are perplexed and worried about trends in America. The use of psychoactive drugs other than Ritalin for preteen children is virtually unheard of outside this country.

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