Parents, Schools Face Off Over Ritalin
Aug. 15, 2000 -- When Patricia Weathers took her 9-year-old son off an antidepressant and medication similar to Ritalin, she thought it was the best thing she could do for him. After taking the drugs, he constantly gnawed his shirt collar and began to hear "voices."
But soon, Weathers, of Millbrook, N.Y., found herself in a situation that is becoming more common around the U.S. as the debate over the use of psychiatric drugs for children continues: Her son's elementary school accused her of medical neglect and called child-abuse investigators.
Eventually, Weathers was cleared of any charges. She says her son, Michael Mozer, is now doing well without medications. But the years of battle with his public school over medication, and the horrible side effects he suffered from the drugs, convinced her to place him in a private school. She tells WebMD that she hopes her story will encourage parents to resist pressure from schools that might want children to be medicated because of their behavior problems.
School officials, of course, cannot write prescriptions themselves. But can they force a parent to seek out a professional, such as a psychiatrist, who will? And can they expel a child who doesn't take medication or intimidate parents by threatening to phone social services or child-abuse investigators? Weathers says that's what happened to her, and there are reports of other similar cases around the country.
These parents' experiences are occurring against the backdrop of an ongoing controversy not only over the use of psychiatric medications for children, but about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) itself. Researchers believe some 3% to 5% of school-aged children have ADHD; symptoms include constant motion, impulsivity, and an inability to concentrate. Children are commonly prescribed Ritalin or other stimulants that seem to help some children settle down and focus better.
While some studies suggest these medications are being overprescribed, some physicians believe just the opposite. They say that far more children need care and aren't getting it because their problems are going unrecognized. The issue also raises a question that some believe needs an answer: Should parents be allowed to refuse psychiatric medications for their children?
As early as kindergarten, Michael's teachers were frequently calling his mother to complain that he was "anxious, hyperactive, impulsive, distracting the other kids." Weathers recalls. A school psychologist recommended Ritalin, and Michael's pediatrician put him on it; he took the medication for all of second grade and had an "uneventful year."
But by third grade, Michael was "socially withdrawing and gnawing on things, pencils, his shirt" and being shunned and ridiculed by the other children, Weathers says. His pediatrician switched him to Dexedrine, and, on the advice of the school psychologist, Weathers also took Michael to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnosed social anxiety disorder and put him on Paxil, a medication similar to Prozac, and urged Weathers not to stop the Dexedrine.