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Psychotropic drugs: are children being made sick?

psychotropic drugs for children
psychotropic drugs for children
©: I-vista

Especially in the US, parents like to use psychotropic drugs even if their children have minor behavioural problems. How dramatic this development is can be seen from current figures.

In the US, more and more children are considered mentally ill and are subsequently treated psychotropic drugs. Behavioural problems are treated most frequently. Dinci Pennap and several other colleagues working at the University of Maryland have described this development in the journal Jama Paediatrics (

For example, in the eastern states of the United States, out of 35,000 children born in 2007 in a low-income family, 20% of those children were diagnosed as mentally ill by the age of 8. Ten percent of those affected were treated with psychotropic drugs until the age of ten.

So far, no-one knows what the long-term consequences are for the mental and physical health of the children and the development of their brains. Most commonly, ADHD is diagnosed as a mental illness. In this "illness," the concentration and attention of the child is disturbed. These diagnoses include learning difficulties and disturbed social behaviour, but also anxiety and adjustment disorders. This mainly affects boys. Girls are often diagnosed with anxiety and adjustment disorders. Both boys and girls are equally affected by disturbed social behaviour and learning difficulties. Depression or autism, however, is rarely diagnosed.

The long-term consequences are unknown

In most children, learning difficulties were already at age three diagnosed. About 75 percent of children were treated with stimulants until the age of 8. 33 percent of the children received a sedative drug. 20 percent a sedative or anxiolytic drug. 16 percent of the affected children received two medications, four percent three or more. But: Two-thirds of the prescribed drugs are not approved for the use in children by the FDA. There is no long-term data about the consequences of this. For example, the question arises as to what influence this early use of psychotropic drugs has on the psyche of children, their metabolism, sleep behaviour, or cognitive abilities.

Equally frightening for the authors was the duration of use - in this context, however, it is not clear how many children have taken the prescribed psychotropic drugs. For three-year-old children, the average duration of intake was 49 days per year. For seven-year-olds, the average length was even 200 days per year. These data were collected through Medicaid, a program for the health care of low-income families. This data could be obtained because the children taking part in the survey had insurance. This explains why the data could not be transferred to other social classes.

Almost all children born in 2007 who were insured by the relevant state with Medicaid were included in the study and monitored for eight years. It is striking that from the birth year, more white children than children with Latin American or Afro-American backgrounds were classified as mentally ill. 334 of the examined children live in care facilities. They show a more frequent psychiatric diagnosis. Also, the duration of the use of psychotropic drugs was longer than in children who lived at home.

Therefore, the authors also call for long-term studies on the efficacy and safety of these treatments. Most drugs would be prescribed because of behavioural problems, so the benefit-risk ratio must be carefully weighed up. Because the handling of psychotropic medications is extremely lax, this could result in a massive health problem for the United States.

Conspicuous behaviour in children

What the study does not testify, or perhaps did not investigate, are the circumstances of how the child has become this way. How did it grow up? Did the parents look after the child, did they experience love and affection? Unfortunately, today, children are given far too quickly psychotropic drugs without investigating first why the child shows a behaviour. Way too often, the reason for their behaviour is not the child, but a flaw in the parents, the environment, and the way the child has experienced its first years of life.

Admittedly psychotropic drugs mitigate the problem quickly but do not resolve the underlying issue. The long-term consequences, especially if pre-school children have been administered psychotropic drugs, are not yet sufficiently researched. However, it is conceivable that it has a negative effect on the brain or on the developing child, teenager, or even adult.

Difficult children in youth work

Your number one tool is getting to know the child. Count on your empathy. That's a better way to help than condemning it an "impossible child." Even worse, thinking of muting it with psychotropic drugs, which you cannot do in your line of work anyway. Please do not get it wrong: of course, if children must take their doctor's prescribed medication at a camp, then you must comply. The premature administration of psychotropic drugs at an early age, as shown in the above study, the child remains alone with all its problems. Drugs make it only easier for the surrounding adults.

In our youth work, we encounter again and again difficult, behaviour-sensitive children. What they needed is to get to know themselves and their boundaries. Give them tasks and responsibilities, encourage and praise them, give them security and much more – that would be the right way to go about difficult children.

That also means not immediately labelling those children as "troublemakers". As hyperactive kids who do not listen, who are short-tempered, are fearful and whatever else. That would be wrong. That would be indeed too easy.

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