Like many mothers across the country, Chris Battaglini has been
closely watching her son's high energy since he was a toddler. "He
was excitable," the stay-at-home mom in Lakeville, Mass., says of
those anxious, early days. "He wasn't bouncing off the walls, but he
wasn't able to focus."
By the time he started school, her son's restlessness became more
problematic, and Mrs. Battaglini took him to a doctor. The 6-year-
old was put on medication, something his mother is still adjusting
to. "I'm not thrilled," she says. "But if it's something that's
going to help him be able to focus ... then I'm willing to do it."
Battaglini's experience is part of a growing trend in America:
preschoolers being medicated to control behavior.
While antidepressants and other mood-altering drugs have long
been prescribed to adolescents, the fastest-growing group using such
medication is children under age 5.
Indeed, by one estimate, twice as many preschoolers are being
prescribed antidepressants today than just five years ago. The
development is touching off a new controversy over whether doctors
should be prescribing mood-altering drugs to toddlers at all, let
alone much more frequently.
Critics, including many in the medical community, question
whether youngsters really are more depressed today or simply more
medicated. Many would like to see greater federal oversight of the
process - particularly at a time when there is little consensus on
the impact of Ritilin and other drugs on children. "Depression in a
3- or 4-year-old?" says Lawrence Diller, a pediatrician and the
author of "Running on Ritalin." "What is that? I can't see any
reason for it. Every doctor who's ever prescribed a psychiatric drug
to any kid is doing a balancing act between the needs of the kid and
the needs of the system."
The latest evidence of the growing use of antidepressants among
the very young comes from a report by Express Scripts, a healthcare
management firm in St. Louis. It studied 2 million children in the
US between 1998 and 2002. It found that the number of children
younger than five prescribed antidepressants doubled during that
In 2002, 0.16 percent of girls and 0.23 percent of boys in this
age group were on antidepressants, representing some 40,000 kids.
For children of all ages, use was highest among girls age 15 to 18,
at 6.8 percent. Overall, antidepressant use among patients 18 and
younger increased from 1.6 percent in '98 to 2.4 percent in 2002.
"It was surprising it doubled," says Thomas Delate, director of
research at Express Scripts, of the growth among preschoolers. But
he's not sure the prescription-drug culture shouldn't filter down to
that age group. "One of the biggest reasons [for the jump] is the
growing awareness of depression in this age group," he says.
That, in fact, is a key point of debate. Doctors such as Diller
doubt the very notion of depression among toddlers - let alone
something that's detectable. He calls it a "pseudo-science."
But others believe it definitely exists and needs to be dealt
with. Graham Emslie, a psychiatry professor in Dallas, Texas, and
author of several studies on antidepressants, estimates that as many
five percent of all adolescents, which includes toddlers, suffer
from severe depression. …