Kids' Use of Psychiatric Meds Triple
April 30, 2002 -- More kids are taking psychiatric drugs than ever before. Over the past decade, the number of kids taking medications for depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other behavior problems has tripled.
In a new study, researchers analyze data between 1987 and 1996, focusing on medication use among more than 50,000 people including more than 17,000 children aged 18 and younger.
They found "a dramatic increase" in the use of psychiatric medications by children which cuts across age, racial/ethnic, geographic, gender, and insurance groups, and included stimulants used for ADHD, antidepressants, and other such medications, according to Mark Olfson, MD, MPH, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in New York.
Olfson reports his findings in the May issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
However, despite the increases, "we know there are substantial numbers of children who are still not being treated for psychiatric disorders," Olfson tells WebMD.
Among his findings:
- During the 10-year period, overall use of psychiatric medications in children and adolescents more than tripled.
- Use of stimulants for ADHD increased four-fold, from six to 24 per 1,000 children and adolescents.
- Use of antidepressants by children more than tripled, from three to 10 children per 1,000.
- Among children already on one psychiatric medication, the number who were on multiple such drugs almost tripled from 47 to 116 children per 1,000. Antidepressants and stimulants were most commonly prescribed together.
"As these medications are around longer and longer, they've become more accepted," says Jeff Epstein, PhD, director of the ADHD program at Duke University Medical Center.
Since stimulants were introduced in the mid-1960s, they have been extensively studied, Epstein tells WebMD. "We have lots of studies showing their side effects and how effective they are, so people tend to accept them."
The antidepressants commonly prescribed to young people, known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) "have been even more rapidly accepted, possibly because parents themselves are taking them -- I think that's part of it," says Epstein.
However, few studies have been done to show how effective SSRIs are in treating children, say both Olfson and Epstein. SSRIs include Celexa, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft.
"There are probably fewer than 10 studies [of antidepressants], whereas with stimulants, there are hundreds and hundreds of studies," says Epstein. "That's concerning to me, that pediatricians or psychiatrists are prescribing them at really high rates without knowing if they work."
Also, SSRIs have only been FDA approved for treatment of children with obsessive-compulsive disorder. "None of the antidepressants have been FDA approved for treatment of childhood depression," Olfson points out. "There is some data to support their effectiveness, but how they do over the longer term awaits further study."