Psychiatric Medications for Children: Problem or Solution?

Psychiatric Medications

The use of psychiatric medications in kids and teens has soared in recent years. Are doctors too quick to prescribe, or is something else going on?

The number of children and teens who take psychiatric medications has soared in recent years. Some people feel that these drugs are being overprescribed. They fear that doctors are medicating children who are simply lively, “different” or more troubled than other kids.

But, research tells a different story. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in 10 children and teens in the U.S. has a mental illness severe enough to cause problems for the child. And eight out of 10 of them don’t get the treatment they need.

For children who don’t get the right kind of help for mental health problems, the outlook is grim. They are at greater risk for school failure, substance abuse, eating disorders, troubled relationships and suicide.

Why are so many kids taking psychiatric medications?

In past years, experts didn’t think kids could have mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder or depression. They thought children and teens weren’t mature enough to have problems. Or, they dismissed their problems as “kids being kids.”

Now we know that many mental, behavioral and emotional problems are inherited and can strike at any time during life. Family conflict, trauma or loss of a parent or close family member can trigger mental health problems even in very young children.

Even today, these problems are often overlooked in children because they may have different symptoms than adults. For example, a child who is depressed may have headaches and stomachaches. A child with an anxiety disorder may have nightmares or refuse to go to school.

What is the concern about these medications in children?

Many psychiatric drugs have never been formally tested in children. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires drug companies to do safety testing of medications. In the past, though, children were not included because of ethical concerns.

Some drugs such as Ritalin, used to treat ADHD, have been tested and approved for use in children. In other cases, doctors may prescribe drugs based on later studies done in children or based on clinical experience. Experts agree more studies in children are needed to know the right dosages, how a drug works in children and what the long-term effects are.

What children’s mental health problems are treated with medication?

Mental disorders that can begin in childhood that may be treated with medication include:

  • Anxiety
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism and autism spectrum disorders
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Tic disorders

Psychotherapy or counseling is also an option in the treatment of some of these conditions. It can be used either alone or with medication.

What should I do if I’m worried about my child’s mental health?

The first step is to have your child evaluated by a doctor or qualified mental health professional. It’s not easy to diagnose mental health problems in kids, and a proper diagnosis can’t be made during a short office visit. A complete evaluation may take several hours, several visits and sometimes one or more specialists. The process may also involve a lot of tests and paperwork.

Medication can be an important part of treatment for mental health problems, but it is not the solution by itself. It should be part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes counseling and family support.

If your child’s doctor recommends psychiatric medication, be sure you know:

  • What the medication is for
  • What benefits it should have
  • What risks and side effects it may have and what to do if they occur
  • How often your child needs to seen for follow-up
  • What other types of treatment may help your child
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