The number of kids being put on powerful psychological drugs has exploded in recent years. Prescriptions for psychoactive drugs in children and teens increased 510% between 1992 and 2003. (AGP, 2006) Diagnosis for things like bipolar disorder has risen more than 40-fold in less than a decade. (Tanner, 2007) This has led to more and more children being placed on medication for psychological and behavioral issues. As of 2008 there were more than 600,000 kids in the U.S. taking antipsychotic drugs (Lagnado, 2013), and this number has been steadily rising.
Should you put a child on psychiatric medication?
If the evidence for using psychological medication with adults is tenuous at best, the reasons for putting children on these drugs are even harder to come by. Aside from the fact that there’s little evidence these drugs actually work as intended, there are serious questions about whether psychological medication should be used at all on children and teens, for several reasons.
A) A child’s mood and behavior are largely the product of their environment, so putting kids on medication for psychological issues skirts the primary problem while quite possibly harming them in the process.
B) Children are more susceptible to chemically-induced brain changes, and since no research has ever established a link between mental illness and lower levels of any of the neurotransmitters psychological medications aim to boost, it is a scientific certainty that psychological medication will create chemical imbalances in a child’s brain rather than correct them. When taken over large spans of time, these changes could become permanent. Many pediatricians have raised serious concerns about dousing a child’s developing brain in drugs. The FDA has also issued warnings regarding the use of psychological and behavioral medication in children and expressed concerns about over-diagnosis and the harmful outcomes that come with it. (Harris, 2006)
C) Child and adolescent behavior is more erratic by nature. Therefore what adults see as disruptive or problematic may be perfectly natural and developmentally appropriate for children. As Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick states, “The extension of these [mental illness] categories to include 20 to 30 percent of all children reflects a social trend of pathologizing and medicalizing children’s lives, which seems to reflect difficulties of parents and teachers in dealing with familiar problems of child development.” (Tanner, 5-15-2007)
Helaina Hovitz was a teenage girl attending school in lower Manhattan when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. The way professionals tried to treat her mental health issues afterwards provides a perfect example of how kids are routinely put on ineffective medications rather than have their underlying problems dealt with:
One therapist grumbled and closed his eyes while I talked. He clung to the fact that I was constantly sad and that I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. I was diagnosed with depression. I was medicated for it. I didn’t get better. Another therapist heard about my inability to concentrate in class, my sleeplessness, and my rapid and unstoppable flood of negative thoughts, and diagnosed me with ADD. I was medicated for it. I didn’t get better.
Then I was diagnosed as bipolar because of my episodes of emotional volatility coupled with my ability to also feel extreme happiness. I was medicated for that too; I still didn’t get better.
“For six years a revolving door of medical professionals tried to ‘fix’ me and only left me feeling drained of hope,” she says. After a particularly low point in which she contemplated suicide, she decided “it was time to get real help, beyond the Celexa for the anxiety, the Klonopin for the panic attacks, and the sleeping pills that were the only way I could get through the nights.” (Rovitz, 2016) She was referred to a cognitive behavioral therapist, and finally got the help needed to work through her issues.
Unfortunately, stories like this are all too typical. Even under the best of circumstances, psychological medication is little more than a stopgap, and should never be used as the primary mode of treatment. As psychologist Jay Giedd writes, “For clinicians, the paucity of novel medications in psychiatry and the propensity of the adolescent brain to respond to environmental challenges suggest that non medication interventions may be most fruitful – especially early in teen development, when white matter, gray matter, and networking are changing fast. Treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder is one example; behavioral interventions that trigger the obsessive impulse but gradually modify a person’s response may be highly effective and could prevent a lifetime of disability.” (Giedd, 2015, p. 37)