Mood Swings

The psychologist Abraham Maslow once wrote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This metaphor aptly describes the mindset that has plagued the field of psychiatry over the past couple of decades, particularly when it comes to treating children with severe forms of emotional and behavioral disturbance. The consequence of this one-tool-fits-all mentality has been an epidemic of Bipolar Disorder diagnoses and off-label prescribing of powerful anti-psychotic medications, which has often done more harm than good. Disturbingly, these trends persist—although there are signs that the pendulum may finally be swinging the other way, as reported by the New York Times:

A Child’s Ordeal Shows Risks Of Psychosis Drugs for Young

OPELOUSAS, La. — At 18 months, Kyle Warren started taking a daily antipsychotic drug on the orders of a pediatrician trying to quell the boy’s severe temper tantrums.

Thus began a troubled toddler’s journey from one doctor to another, from one diagnosis to another, involving even more drugs. Autism, bipolar disorder, hyperactivity, insomnia, oppositional defiant disorder. The boy’s daily pill regimen multiplied: the antipsychotic Risperdal, the antidepressant Prozac, two sleeping medicines and one for attention-deficit disorder. All by the time he was 3.

He was sedated, drooling and overweight from the side effects of the antipsychotic medicine. Although his mother, Brandy Warren, had been at her “wit’s end” when she resorted to the drug treatment, she began to worry about Kyle’s altered personality. “All I had was a medicated little boy,” Ms. Warren said. “I didn’t have my son. It’s like, you’d look into his eyes and you would just see just blankness.”

Today, 6-year-old Kyle is in his fourth week of first grade, scoring high marks on his first tests. He is rambunctious and much thinner. Weaned off the drugs through a program affiliated with Tulane University that is aimed at helping low-income families whose children have mental health problems, Kyle now laughs easily and teases his family.

Ms. Warren and Kyle’s new doctors point to his remarkable progress — and a more common diagnosis for children of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder — as proof that he should have never been prescribed such powerful drugs in the first place.

Kyle now takes one drug, Vyvanse, for his attention deficit. His mother shared his medical records to help document a public glimpse into a trend that some psychiatric experts say they are finding increasingly worrisome: ready prescription-writing by doctors of more potent drugs to treat extremely young children, even infants, whose conditions rarely require such measures.

More than 500,000 children and adolescents in America are now taking antipsychotic drugs, according to a September 2009 report by the Food and Drug Administration. Their use is growing not only among older teenagers, when schizophrenia is believed to emerge, but also among tens of thousands of preschoolers.

A Columbia University study recently found a doubling of the rate of prescribing antipsychotic drugs for privately insured 2- to 5-year-olds from 2000 to 2007. Only 40 percent of them had received a proper mental health assessment, violating practice standards from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“There are too many children getting on too many of these drugs too soon,” Dr. Mark Olfson, professor of clinical psychiatry and lead researcher in the government-financed study, said. [full article]

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5 responses

  1. Very frightening. With the influence of the drug companies, and the pressures to ‘fix this quick’, the system works against pracctitioners who take time and don’t use drugs as a first resort.
    It’s troubling to think of these drugs being used on a child whose brain is still developing.
    I do think his mother must have been seeing some abnormal and uncontrollable behavior when she first sought help. People go to psychiatrists for real problems, it’s too bad there are not better solutions.

  2. I have exactly zero expertise in this area,but it seems that strong meds are being dispensed too readily and for too long with regard to young children
    Hell,adults who fully developed have been seriously damaged with “wonder” drugs like Thorazine and Haldol.Tardive dyskinesia for starters.Kidney damage from lithium.I’m sure many more examples are available.
    I don’t recall that there were THAT many kids who were hperactive,had attention deficit,etc when I was growing up.
    maybe difficult kids are just too much trouble for everyone nowadays-just “dope”‘em and it’ll all be ok.
    If practioners were handing out opiates so readily and in such quantity,DEA would be up their rear end like a proctoscope.
    Let’s not forget that the overuse of antibiotics for no reason(i.e. for viruses) has led to “superbug”infections.
    I’m not Luddite who wants to dispense with potent drugs-they have their use,but also their downside and a careful individualized evaluation is necessary.

  3. Thanks for coming back to this issue, David, it’s very important and needs more attention. What’s also not good is when a new psychiatrist comes along and decides to stop all meds on a child who has been using medication heavily since early in life. There needs to be a carefully monitored weaning process. Also, kids growing is such a huge factor and an unknown when dosing and so on, it’s so hard to know. It’s also important to remember that kids go through phases where they are more aggressive or disobedient and, if you have an appropriate response as a parent and you don’t change your response (or at least not drastically), often the phase passes.

    I find small children in stable environments to be highly receptive to play therapy that reinforces a positive identity. I have seen kids with huge behavior problems who are now in foster care stabilize on therapy alone.

  4. And sadly this happens at a time when, destroyed by corporate greed, our society seems to have no money left to pay for real help (not just pills) for those who can’t afford it.

  5. bless every one who has worked and still works for mental health parity in insurance coverage and in treatment. Pat Kennedy and former surgeon general David Satcher deserve credit.

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