Overprescribing to Our Youth

June 27, 2018

There was a time when kids who had psychological, emotional or behavioral problems were declared to be trouble-makers. They would spend their time sitting in isolation while other students were learning or worse, they would be largely ignored. Eventually, some of the problems facing these children were recognized and the medical community started treating cases of ADHD and more. Sadly, there are times that kids were being prescribed medication and then nothing more was done for them.

In recent years, there has been talk about whether kids are being overmedicated. A startling number of kids are being given a wide range of meds including psychotropics and anti-depressants. Recent studies have shown that the first prescription is starting at a younger and younger age, sometimes at the preschool level. The CDC found that more than 6% of teens take at least one psychotropic med, often without therapy, behavior modification or other treatments to accompany them. That same study found that girls are more than two times as likely to be prescribed an anti-depressant while boys are prescribed ADHD meds at about the same rate.

The Problem With Overmedicating

Medications may not always address the real problems that the teens are facing. While in some cases, these drugs are needed but there are other things that are beneficial as well such as talk therapy, behavioral modification therapy and others. Even when they are deemed to be necessary, there is a risk that the medications will become “too much” and the teen is left not functioning at the level that he has the potential to. There is also the risk of addiction when the drugs are used as the only part of therapy especially in teens that have multiple diagnoses and are not seeing improvement of a specific set of symptoms .

Because the signs of overmedication may mimic symptoms of other behavioral issues, the medical team’s first response may be to simply increase dosage or to add another medication which further complicates things. Some of those symptoms can include:

  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue
  • Weight changes
  • Concentration issues
  • Memory issues
  • Personality changes
  • Feeling like a zombie

It can be a vicious cycle especially if the teen is not being given counseling of any kind where some of these feelings could be addressed. Being able to say “these meds make me feel” and then describing in detail the symptoms could not only stop the over use of meds but could also address the real problem that the teen is having. In an article on Child Mind, Dr. Linda Spiro, PsyD discusses how common misdiagnosis is especially with children under the age of 17. The disruptive behaviors are often the most commonly misdiagnosed which means that a child could be given meds for a condition they do not have, meds that will not help and in some cases will actually hinder a real diagnosis and proper treatment.

Spiro’s article estimates that as much as 50% of kids being treated for ADHD actually have a learning disorder such as dyslexia. That child may be given medications like Adderall which will only mask the problem allowing it to continue.

Parents may be urged to allow the medications sometimes by doctors and sometimes by the schools under the guise of what’s best for the child but that is often without the benefit of a full mental health evaluation. Asking for a second opinion or even for a referral to a child psychiatrist may make the parent feel like they are being pushy or problematic. It is important especially if the only other solution is just a drug.

If you feel that your teen is being overmedicated it is important to consult a professional for a second opinion but do not just stop any meds. Psychotropic meds must be tapered down slowly and should be down while under a doctor’s care. Keep track of new or worsening symptoms especially those that you believe to be caused by over prescribed meds. For immediate assistance seek a qualified facility, preferably one that specializes in the treatment of teens. Evaluation including whether or not the meds are needed will be an important step and may require more care and treatment than is currently being provided. This may mean more intensive care which could include in-patient treatment so that meds can be tapered off safely and then re-evaluated.