Childhood Behavioural Issues: To Medicate or Not?

As a country, Americans have been trained to see drugs as the answer to everything. The United States and New Zealand are the only countries that allow drug companies to advertise directly to the consumer, which means that on any given day we are exposed to hundreds of ads on television, radio, print, and digital media, all designed to get us to ask our doctors if the latest miracle pill is right for us. The results of this are especially prevalent in the number of children that are regularly taking psychiatric medication.


Children and Medication

An article published by CNN Health in 2011 reported disturbing statistics concerning psychiatric drug prescriptions among children:

·  From 1999 to 2001 the ratio of children aged 2 through 5 on psychiatric drugs was 0.78 per 1,000. In 2007 that number increased to 1.5 in 1,000.

·  Antidepressant use in children aged 6 and older increased from 5.84 percent in 1996 to 10.12 percent in 2005.

This increase in childhood psychiatric medication is troubling because it either implies that there has been an increase in childhood psychiatric disorders, or that these medications are being overprescribed.


Child Mental Health

Mental illnesses are serious and even life-threatening diseases. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, suicide ranked number 10 in causes of death among people aged one to 85 in the U.S., and number four in the causes of death among people aged 18 to 65. Considering the statistics, mental illness in any age is something that should be taken seriously.

However, the issue with psychiatric medications is that many of them are formulated for adults, which can lead to problems with dosing in children. Another issue is that, if childhood psychiatric disorders are on the rise, is this a sign that something is going seriously wrong with society, or is it simply a sign that we are becoming more aware of mental health issues than we were before?

Until we can answer that question, the issue of medicating children will remain controversial.


Overprescribing Medications

One theory is that childhood psychiatric illnesses aren’t necessarily on the rise, but that we have changed the way we deal with them. The advent of new drug therapies has made it easier to treat individuals with emotional or behavioural issues, but often the drugs are prescribed in lieu of other therapies.

The belief is that children who are labeled disruptive in the classroom, and were previously given therapy along with regular psychological evaluations and review of their home environments, are now simply put on the latest medications and returned to the classroom without any follow-up care.

However, one major issue with any emotional or mental disorder is that diagnosis can often be hit or miss. Diagnosis is based almost entirely on behavioural criteria as explained in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and those criteria can change with each revision. Each revision can also introduce new behavioural categories that did not exist before. Add to that the fact that some children actually do grow out of their emotional and behavioural difficulties; it’s easy to see how parents could draw the conclusion that medication is being used as a standard operating procedure instead of a last resort.



The question of whether or not children should be medicated is a difficult one to answer.

On the one hand, there is the issue of the long-term effects of these drugs on children’s bodies and minds. No drug is side effect free and even seemingly safe drugs can have dangerous side effects. Baron and Budd reports instances of nerve damage from prescription antibiotics like Levaquin, Avelox, and Cipro, and these drugs are only taken to treat short-term illnesses.

Some of the drugs used to treat ADHD, a common diagnosis in children, are taken every day, and sometimes several times a day. These drugs can have debilitating side effects, including heart problems, seizures, hallucinations and even suicide attempts.

On the other hand, mental illness and behavioural problems are serious issues, and there are those children who cannot function without these drugs. Some may even be on a combination of drugs to manage their symptom, and experience a noticeable decline without them.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not to medicate children isn’t something that can be answered in broad terms. It will have to be up to parents, healthcare professionals, educators, and the children themselves to work together to determine the best course of action on an individual basis.

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