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Health & Parenting

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Kids Drugs Mental Health

WebMD Feature

Kids, Drugs, and Mental Health Too many kids are getting antidepressants instead of behavioral therapy.

Preschool kids are taking drugs for psychiatric disorders -- more than ever before. Toddlers are getting prescriptions for anxiety and hyperactivity, often without ever seeing a specialist.

Is it really anxiety, or just a child's shyness in a new situation? Is it really hyperactivity, or just a growth stage the child is going through?

A recent study points out that these medications have not been approved for young children and the potential for harmful effects on them is unknown.

In the study, researchers reviewed outpatient prescription records and found the No. 1 most prescribed psychotropic drug was Ritalin.

In fact, from 1991 to 1995, Ritalin prescriptions tripled among some groups of children 2 to 4 years old, reports researcher Julie Magno Zito, PhD, associate professor of pharmacy and medicine at the University of Maryland. Her report appeared in a February 2000 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

No. 2: Antidepressants, including Prozac and Zoloft. During the years that were studied, antidepressant prescriptions doubled among toddlers.

It all points to a growing crisis in mental health services, says an accompanying editorial.

"Behaviorally disturbed children are now increasingly subjected to quick and inexpensive [medication] fixes" rather than approaches that include pediatric, psychiatric, behavioral, and family care, according to Joseph T. Coyle, MD, chairman of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

A doctor trained in diagnosing emotional or behavioral conditions should assess any child who has been recommended for psychiatric medication, says Coyle.

A prescription, he says, should not always be the first option.

Too frequently, inexperienced parents "diagnose" problems in their young children -- when the kids are just being normal, says Oscar Bukstein, MD, associate professor of psychiatry in the Western Psychiatric Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

It's true that preschoolers do have problems, he tells WebMD. "We have identified major depression in preschoolers. We know that ADHD does exist in little kids. Anxiety disorders are also very common."

However, many times the problem is related to lack of socialization -- or simply to a young child's developmental level, he says. "Kids who haven't been put in social situations before preschool will have difficulty at first. Also, the average preschooler is very often more hyper than the average school-age kid. An inexperienced parent can easily think their child has ADHD when in fact the preschooler simply hasn't been accustomed to social situations."

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