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Why Does Johnny Take So Many Pills?

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But many providers argue that proper use of both types of medication can be a real boon for many children and their families. "I'm seeing more kids who are being placed on the medications, but I'm also seeing a real need for the medications," says Ira Glovinsky, PhD, who was not involved in the study. "These medications really do help children ... A lot of parents go for years and try to get things managed behaviorally, and go from one therapist to another when they're really dealing with a biological problem," says Glovinsky, a psychologist in private practice in West Bloomfield, Mich.

Rushton and colleagues found that the number of children and adolescents (age 19 and under) in their study who were taking stimulants rose from just over 9,000 in 1990 to more than 135,000 in 1998. Over the same period, the proportion of Medicaid recipients age 6 to 14 on Ritalin or similar drugs rose from almost 3% to nearly 11%.

The researchers also saw a fall in the average age of kids taking antidepressants from 15 years to 13 years. Boys received stimulants three times more often than girls throughout the '90s. Girls had a two-to-one edge over boys in taking antidepressants in 1990, but by 1998 the boys had caught up. Hispanics were less likely than others to be on stimulants, and whites were more likely than others to be on antidepressants.

"Prescriptions for stimulants and [antidepressants] have increased dramatically for children and adolescents during the 1990s," the authors write. "Prescriptions continue to increase ... In addition, combination therapy has become a common practice." They also write that future research must determine why this is happening.

Vital Information:

  • New research shows that over the past 10 years, young, low-income patients in North Carolina have been getting more prescriptions for stimulants and antidepressants.
  • In interpreting the findings, the researchers say there could be three explanations: more kids are being discovered with, and treated for, mental problems; drugs are replacing other therapies for established patients; or simply too many prescriptions are being written.
  • The authors add that doctors and parents should be careful with medicating children. Some experts feel treating these children needs to take a comprehensive approach. Observers add, however, that when used properly, these medications have helped a lot of children with their illnesses.
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