When will this stop? One more psychiatrist says enough!
Special to The Washington Post
By Elizabeth J. Roberts, California child and adolescent psychiatrist, author of “Should You Medicate Your Child’s Mind?”
I’ve been treating, educating and caring for children for more than 30 years, half of that time as a child psychiatrist, and the changes I’ve seen in the practice of child psychiatry are shocking. Psychiatrists now misdiagnose and overmedicate children for ordinary defiance and misbehavior. Temper tantrums are increasingly being characterized as psychiatric illnesses.
Using such diagnoses as bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Asperger’s, doctors are justifying the sedation of difficult kids with powerful psychiatric drugs that may have serious, permanent or even lethal side effects.
There has been a staggering jump in the percentage of children diagnosed with a mental illness and treated with psychiatric medications: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2002 almost 20 percent of office visits to pediatricians were for psychosocial problems — eclipsing asthma and heart disease. That same year, the Food and Drug Administration reported that some 10.8 million prescriptions were dispensed for children, who are beginning to outpace the elderly in the consumption of pharmaceuticals.
This year, the FDA reported that between 1999 and 2003, 19 children died after taking prescription amphetamines, the medications used to treat ADHD. These are the same drugs for which the number of prescriptions written rose 500 percent from 1991 to 2000.
Some psychiatrists speculate that this stunning increase in childhood psychiatric disease is entirely due to improved diagnostic techniques. But setting aside the children with legitimate mental illnesses who must have psychiatric medications to function normally, much of the increase in prescribing such medications to kids is due to the widespread use of psychiatric diagnoses to explain away the results of poor parenting practices.
Parents and teachers today seem to believe that any boy who wriggles in his seat and willfully defies his teacher’s rules has ADHD. Likewise, any child who has a temper tantrum is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After all, an anger outburst is how most parents define a “mood swing.”
Doctors once insisted on hours of evaluation of a child before making a diagnosis or prescribing a medication. Today, some of my colleagues in psychiatry brag that they can make an initial assessment of a child and write a prescription in less than 20 minutes. Some parents tell me it took their pediatrician only five minutes. Who’s the winner in this race?
Unfortunately, when a child is diagnosed with a mental illness, almost everyone benefits. The schools get more state funding for the education of a mentally handicapped student. Teachers have more subdued students in their overcrowded classrooms. Finally, parents are not forced to examine their poor parenting practices because they have the perfect excuse: Their child has a chemical imbalance.
The only loser in this equation is the child, who must endure the side effects of these powerful drugs and be unnecessarily labeled with a mental illness.