Medicating Childhood Behavior: Caution Ahead

In Hannibal Missouri, Huckleberry Finn’s house sits next door to Mark Twain’s.  Tom Blankenship, the real boy who lived in the tiny house, was the model for the wild and fictional Huck, as Mark Twain was for the impish prankster Tom Sawyer.  In the sleepy little town set on the banks of the Mississippi River, it is easy to imagine the two real boys living the lives Twain created for his characters. And it is just as easy to imagine what would happen to two such boys in the modern world. Twain and Blankenship would be disruptive children, seeing the school psychologists and being medicated for attention deficit disorder.  Is this progress, or are too many children today labeled with psychological disorders and taking drugs to modify behavior?

Reasons for psychoactive medication use in children

The most legitimate reason for identifying and labeling children as disordered is that some psychological disorders that appear early in life express themselves more severely in adulthood than later onset versions do. Early treatment helps prevent more dysfunction later, especially in problems like autism. Other reasons may be less admirable.  Prescribing drugs to treat emotional and behavioral symptoms is easier and less time consuming than dealing with the psychological problems that lie beneath the symptoms, problems which do not reflect abnormal brains.

How did we get to medicating behavior?

Attempts to treat psychological symptoms with drugs began in earnest with the serendipitous discovery in the 1950s that certain drugs, used for treating infections and high blood pressure, appeared to elevate mood. They seemed to have a direct effect on behavior.  Pharmaceutical companies then began to develop drugs specifically targeted to brain function.  Later, scientists discovered that these drugs led to changes of levels of chemicals in the brain that transmit information between nerve cells and they developed the neurochemical theory of psychological disorders.  The drug age of treatment of anxiety, depression and psychosis took off on the assumption that the drugs treated some native chemical imbalance in the brain. Because there is no direct evidence for such imbalance, some respected psychiatrists now question the neurochemical theory. Additionally, careful review of many drug studies show their effects to be little better than placebos (sugar pills). Nevertheless, drug treatment of psychological symptoms has ballooned in all age groups, particularly in the late 1900s and early 2000s. Between 1987 and 1996 the use of psychoactive drugs in children from ages 6-17 jumped 2-3 times. By 2000, 8.8% of 6-17 year olds were taking some kind of psychoactive drug. By 2017 the number of children medicated for behavior was over 7 million.

The diagnoses that prompt drug treatment in children

The behaviors of modern children that prompt treatment are divided into diagnostic categories: attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD); mood, anxiety and disruptive behavioral disorders; autistic spectrum disorders and childhood schizophrenia. The latter two categories reflect distinct disorders of brain function, but the first four are defined by behaviors that are often related to age and circumstances. But even autistic spectrum disorder diagnoses capture many children with behaviors that were once considered part of the normal range of human personality and behavior – social ineptness, obsessional interests and unusual styles of learning and communicating.

Non-medical factors involved in the rise in psychoactive drug prescriptions

Non-medical factors which have added to the enthusiasm for drug treatment of behavioral symptoms have been the tremendous changes in society since World War II –in family structure and values, leisure time activities, employment patterns, the educational system and in the non-governmental institutions like churches and community groups that used to provide moral and structural support.  While schools once neglected girls’ needs, boys are now immersed in an educational system geared to girls, who are more verbally adept at younger ages than boys are.  Sitting still and learning to read is a task that boys confront several years earlier than they used to, and many lack the required maturity.  When they fail and act out, they are thought to be inattentive and impulsive, garnering them ADD evaluations and drug treatment significantly more often than girls.

Changes in the practice of medicine

Changes in the practice of medicine, with more emphasis on tests and drugs now than on time spent in direct contact with patients and families, also contribute to the ease with which drugs are used as the primary approach to all kinds of medical problems, not just psychological ones. Another problem for children is “off-label” drug use, a term applied to the perfectly legal practice of prescribing drugs for reasons other than those used in the trials that determined their safety. It is estimated that 70% of all pediatric drug use is off-label, and for most of the psychoactive drugs used in children, testing has been done only in adults. In addition, the majority of psychoactive drugs used in children are prescribed by family practice or general pediatricians, not by psychiatrists. Pediatric psychotherapists, whose help might supplant the need for drugs or improve the outcome of drug treatment, are in short supply. For children without private insurance, psychoactive drug prescription rates are higher than for the privately insured.

Long term concerns

The concerns about widespread use of psychoactive drugs in children extend beyond the many side effects such as decreased appetite, insomnia, cardiac problems, and sudden death  (stimulants used for ADD), and weight gain, sleepiness, liver problems , diabetes, and increased suicide rates (antidepressants , antipsychotics and mood stabilizers).  Some neurodevelopmental biologists think  we may be trading one set of problems for another delayed and potentially more troublesome set,  because psychoactive drugs  have long term effects on the immature brain that are not seen in the adult. The developing brain is meant to learn from experience and modify its behavior in a process we call maturation and  it is not at all clear that interfering in development with drugs that change behavior passively is superior to helping the child learn without drugs,  by improving the social environment and providing competent psychological help.  We should remember that role models for Huck and Tom grew up to be a judge and a famous writer.

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