Is That Thorazine in the Baby’s Bottle?

One of the most disturbing trends in mental health today is the increasing use of powerful antipsychotic medication to treat behavioral problems in children, even very young children. According to a 2009 report by the Food and Drug Administration, there are 500,000 children in the United States being administered regular doses of antipsychotics. Medicaid data shows public health monies spent on antipsychotic drugs for children exceeding $30 million in New Jersey and topping $90 million in Texas. It is a trend that has built relentlessly for the past ten years and continues unabated.

I find the use of these drugs on children to be appalling almost beyond words. Having worked as a mental health professional for many years, I am well acquainted with these medications. This class of drugs, sometimes referred to as neuroleptics, are major tranquilizers and are primarily used and intended for controlling hallucinations and delusions in cases of psychosis and schizophrenia. For an adult with severe schizophrenia, these medications may be a glimmer of hope, but it is always a difficult risk-benefit analysis because there are potentially severe side effects and reactions. Permanent neurological damage can occur in the form of tardive dyskenisia, and sudden death can occur from a reaction called neuroleptic malignancy syndrome. With newer forms of antipsychotics, these type of side effects are less frequent and less severe, but continue to be a risk depending on the reaction of the individual’s body. However, newer, “atypical,” antipsychotics present new dangers to the patient, metabolic changes that result in a dramatic increase in the instances and severity of diabetes and heart disease. The result is that adults on antipsychotic medications have a life span that is 20 years shorter then the average person.

We know these medications have the potential to cause permanent harm to an adult’s brain, but they are still used because it is considered by many to be worth the risks to control just some of the symptoms of debilitating disorders, and, except in the most severe cases, where a person’s legal rights have been taken away due to impairment, it is ultimately up to the patient to decide whether or not to take that risk.

What then will these medications do to a child’s developing brain? The jury is out, but it can’t be a good thing. Who makes the decision and why? Certainly not the child who will live the rest of his or her life with the consequences of that decision.

The New York Times ran a recent article on the subject, highlighting the case of one child who was started on an antipsychotic at 18 months old. This helps to highlight the human side of this tragedy:

At 18 months, Kyle Warren started taking a daily antipsychotic drug on the orders of a pediatrician trying to quell the boy’s severe temper tantrums.

Thus began a troubled toddler’s journey from one doctor to another, from one diagnosis to another, involving even more drugs. Autism, bipolar disorder, hyperactivity, insomnia, oppositional defiant disorder. The boy’s daily pill regimen multiplied: the antipsychotic Risperdal, the antidepressant Prozac, two sleeping medicines and one for attention-deficit disorder. All by the time he was 3.

Today, 6-year-old Kyle is in his fourth week of first grade, scoring high marks on his first tests. He is rambunctious and much thinner. Weaned off the drugs through a program affiliated with Tulane University that is aimed at helping low-income families whose children have mental health problems, Kyle now laughs easily and teases his family.

Ms. Warren and Kyle’s new doctors point to his remarkable progress — and a more common diagnosis for children of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder — as proof that he should have never been prescribed such powerful drugs in the first place.

As to what’s driving this latest treatment fad?  I think there are a number of factors.  The easiest and most popular target is Big Pharma.  The pharmaceutical industry has the largest profit margin of any major industry, and do you know what their most profitable line of drugs are?  Yes, that’s right, antipsychotics.  This class of drugs brought in a staggering $14.6 billion in 2009.  Antipsychotics are marketed as heavily as any other product line, and the marketers are always looking for new markets.  Antipsychotics have been marketed for depression, for instance, and they are actively promoted to pediatricians for use on children, but, for the most part, marketing efforts keep within the limits set by the FDA and the risk-benefit decisions made industry lawyers.  The FDA approved Risperdal for use on children as young as 5, but most antipsychotics are only approved for children 10 or older.

Yet, in spite of the FDA guidelines, these drugs are being given to much younger children. Who then is to blame? The other popular targets of finger pointing are the parents (and, I would add, teachers and childcare workers). Perhaps it is helped along by marketing campaigns, but the fact is, parents are increasingly choosing to pathologize and medicate their children in lieu of other, more traditional, parenting strategies. Childcare and educational professionals add to the stampede by pressuring parents to go to the doctor when the child’s behavior puts a strain on the professional. I think we can objectively state, unequivocally, the nature of childhood needs and behaviors has not changed in recent generations, yet more and more parents go to their pediatricians insisting there is something wrong with their child and demanding some pill they can give the kid to fix the problem. Parents just want to do right by their child, I’m sure, but they fail when the don’t take the time to research what they are doing and the possible consequences.

The final responsibility, however, rests on the shoulders of the professionals who prescribe these medications. Physicians are free to prescribe off label use of drugs and are under no legal obligation to stay within FDA approved guidelines, and some physicians seem more then willing to exercise this discretion in spite of the very serious risks they are exposing the child to. Regardless of shameless marketing by drug manufacturers and the irrational pressures of frustrated parents, the physician is supposed to be the final gate keeper and is responsible to safeguarding the health and wellbeing of the young patients. Physicians who push antipsychotics on children clearly fail in their responsibilities.

The issue is further complicated by shifting diagnostic categories. Schizophrenia is a disorder of adulthood. Age of onset is typically late adolescence or early adulthood. There is no defined criteria and very little in the way of scientific data to justify giving this diagnosis to younger children, yet we are seeing it, now, younger and younger, usually tied to a prescription. Another expanding diagnosis is bipolar. This disorder is very loosely defined and as a result, unscrupulous or simply confused professionals can see it everywhere. It too used to be a disorder of adulthood but has mushroomed as a child diagnosis in the last decade. The other big diagnosis linked to antipsychotics is autism. This is a very serious and real childhood disorder and children who suffer from this take a lot of care and present a lot of challenges. However, the autism diagnosis has become hugely popular and its working definition has expanded infinitely. As in the case of Kyle Warren, just about any child can get the diagnosis at this point. It is now virtually meaningless, yet it is the justification for giving these very serious drugs to young children.

The big picture is we have an expanding culture of psychopathology in which more and more facets of human behavior are being defined as disorders and sicknesses. This extends even to the point of defining childhood tantrums as a sickness that we have to treat with a powerful drug. The pathologization of childhood started probably in the 1980’s with attention deficit disorder and this became hugely popular in the 1990’s. In the first decade of the new millennium, we saw a significant expansion of clinical depression, bipolar and even schizophrenia into younger and younger populations with related drug therapies. Additionally the autism diagnosis has been opened up into a “spectrum” disorder so now parents of children with any kind of perceived interpersonal or behavioral challenges can have an autism label slapped on ‘em at bargain basement prices.

The bottom line is that young children are being harmed by antipsychotic drug treatment and it’s no laughing matter. The trend line is very disturbing. I hope I am not one of a few lone voices in the wilderness. Is anybody listening?

Psych Gripe is a mental health professional based in the Pacific Northwest. He blogs vigorously and often at Psych Gripe.