In the last few years skepticism has been rising as regards what also seems to be an increasingly common practice of young kids being prescribed psychiatric medications. The horrific death of Rebecca Riley, at age 4, from an overdose of medications prescribed for her for ADHD and bipolar disorder should, hopefully, only make the outcry against the practice louder.
Let’s be clear, before anyone out there thinks I’m pulling a Tom Cruise – the availability of effective medications for diseases like depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders is a good thing and has saved lives – including probably the lives of people I know and love. However, I do believe they are not just over-prescribed, but too often casually prescribed (I remember going to a new doctor once and just being asked flat out if I wanted an anti-depressant because “a lot of women in high stress situations find it useful,” without my mentioning anything that might qualify as a symptom for such a prescription to be written. I changed doctors, as I was alarmed by this notion of merely being medicated because life is complicated and I am female). Their use in children particularly alarms me.
Which isn’t to say their use in children should be entirely banned. Pre-teen suicide does occasionally happen and depression, ADHD, and even bipolar disorder all do occur in children. That said, I do feel as if our nation has suddenly forgotten that children are often just difficult as they learn to test limits and interact with the world around them. And if we reach first to medication as opposed to good parenting and then talk therapies, we avoid teaching many children, who do not need to be medicated, how to conduct themselves in a world that may not be optimally designed for them but which they are entirely capable of successfully navigating. Psychiatric medications need to be an available, non-stigmatized last resort for kids and adults alike.
So who’s to blame for our overmedicating our youth? In the case of Rebecca Riley, it looks like the parents who apparently claimed prescriptions were lost and destroyed to get more pills and over-medicate their kids. Teachers described the girl as so weak she was like a rag doll, neighbors say the children were like little robots and something seemed wrong, a family friend acknowledges that the kids were often put to bed at 5pm, often only waking up to eat. What’s astounding to me though, and frightening, is that while people obviously expressed concern, no one ever expressed enough concern to truly put their foot down about it. This may well be a flaw in the system, but it may as easily be the simple fact that in our very positive efforts to destigmatize mental illness and its treatment not enough people feel comfortable saying, “this child shouldn’t be medicated!”
If I were a kid today, odds are somewhere along the line medication would have been encouraged for me. I was a handful, and, as it turns out, there was something wrong – celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder whose symptoms include moodiness and depression. I didn’t manage to get diagnosed until I was an adult, but a quick fix of psychiatric meds as a kid would have only made solving this puzzle more difficult and less likely.
In the medical profession the jury remains out on whether it’s even possible to diagnose very young children with bipolar disorder – what’s normal age-appropriate tantrum throwing and what’s a mental illness? That said, I firmly believe that the best way to make use of the advances in all types of medical treatment is to use them sparingly. We must attempt to heal and understand ourselves to make the most effective use of the medication therapies available to us. After all, would you really go on high blood pressure medication without first, or at least in conjunction with it, trying a dietary change?
Read more about the case of Rebecca Riley here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17758170/