Why Are So Many Young Kids Being Prescribed Antipsychotic Drugs?

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Why Are So Many Young Kids Being Prescribed Antipsychotic Drugs?

By May Wilkerson 12/11/15
Drugs are an easy "fix" for desperate parents who lack access to professional help.
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More kids than ever are being prescribed powerful antipsychotic drugs that are intended for adults, the New York Times reports.

Nearly 20,000 prescriptions for risperidone, commonly known as Risperdal, quetiapine (Seroquel) and other antipsychotic medications were written in 2014 for children ages 2 and younger, a 50% rise from the year before, according to the prescription data company IMS Health. Nearly 83,000 kids in this age group were prescribed the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac), a 23% rise from the year before.

Most of these drugs are being prescribed to toddlers outside of FDA guidelines. Prozac is FDA-approved for depression and obsessive compulsive disorder in kids 7 and older. But most antipsychotics, which treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are only approved for kids age 10 and above. Risperdal is approved for kids as young as 5, but only for one specific condition.

In interviews, experts said they believe these drugs are probably being prescribed to treat children prone to extreme temper tantrums or depression. “People are doing their very best with the tools available to them,” said Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at Tulane University School of Medicine. “There’s a sense of desperation with families of children who are suffering, and the tool that most providers have is the prescription pad.”

But these medications could be potentially harmful to young kids’ developing brains. Because of these risks, they have not been subjected to trials among infants and toddler, said Dr. Gleason, so the dangers and possible side effects remain unknown.

The use of Risperdal for children in particular has been a subject for debate among child psychiatrists, some of whom argue the drug could help young kids who are suffering, while others argue this a band-aid solution to more complex problems.

“There are behavioral ways of working with the problems rather than medication,” said Dr. Ed Tronick, who runs a program that trains health care providers in helping families with troubled kids. “What is generating such fear and anger and withdrawal in the child? What is frustrating or causing stress in the parent? These are the things that have to be explored. But that takes time and money.”

Many experts say one of the reasons for the increasing use of psychotropics in children is a lack of access to trained child psychiatrists. There are only 8,350 practicing childhood psychiatrists in the United States, and many of them are either over-booked or too expensive for families to afford. So much of the onus to treat psychiatric issues among children falls upon pediatricians, who are not necessarily qualified.

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