When a recent study reported a sharp increase in the number of
preschool children taking psychiatric drugs, parents and medical
experts took notice.
So did first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In short order, the White House has announced an initiative aimed
at getting the word out that powerful behavioral drugs such as
Ritalin and Prozac carry risks and that not enough is known about
their effects in young children.
"I think what we have here is a national outcry at a grass-roots
level that is finally reaching the government," says Peter Breggin,
a psychiatrist in Bethesda, Md., and a longtime crusader against
what he calls the overmedicating of children.
The Clinton administration's effort, while limited to younger
children, sharpens questions about how much children of all ages are
being medicated for disruptive behaviors. Recently, a United Nations
panel criticized doctors in the United States for overprescribing
psychiatric drugs. The panel reports that 80 percent of the world's
Ritalin is consumed in the US.
The government initiative, announced yesterday, includes:
*Preparation of a guide for parents on how to treat young
children with emotional and behavioral disorders.
*New labeling by the Food and Drug Administration that will
instruct physicians on proper dosages of psychiatric drugs for young
children. The FDA will soon instruct drug companies on how to
conduct research into uses of hyperactivity and attention-deficit
*A nationwide study by the National Institute of Mental Health on
the safety and effectiveness of Ritalin use among preschoolers
diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
*A White House conference this fall on the treatment of mental
disorders among very young children.
Advocates for the rights of people diagnosed with ADHD agree with
the need for more research on the use of psychostimulant medication
among the young.
"The substantial increase in prescriptions to children ages 2 to
4 demands that we pay immediate attention to this situation," says a
statement from Matthew Cohen, president of Children & Adults with
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), a group based in
"While psychostimulant medication has been found to be safe and
effective in older populations, it's imperative that we have the
same level of assurance about its safety in young children before
this trend continues."
The study that triggered this flurry of attention to children and
psychiatric drugs was published last month in the Journal of the
American Medical Association. It found Ritalin use for preschoolers
had either doubled or tripled between 1991 and 1995, depending on
the group being examined. The research was done by the University of
Maryland and looked at two Medicaid programs and one HMO.
The use of antidepressants was up by 30 percent in the HMO and
about doubled in the other two groups. …