Troubling news on attention-deficit medication for young people

Doctors are resorting to drugs to treat conditions for which they are not even approved by Health Canada

Just a few days ago the issue of psychiatric drugs being prescribed to kids having trouble concentrating in class arose in a private conversation I had with friends of high school-aged children. This morning the sorts of troubling questions we talked about were on the front on my morning Ottawa Citizen and an opinion piece prominently featured in the Sunday New York Times.

The Citizen’s story, by health reporter Sharon Kirkey, reported on a Canadian Journal of Psychiatry study that showed a dramatic increase in the prescribing of the latest generation of antipsychotic drugs to kids in Manitoba, a trend the researchers suspect is happening across the country. Most troubling is the finding that doctors are resorting to drugs to treat conditions for which they are not even approved by Health Canada. The scale is disturbing:

“Researchers looked at the number of prescriptions for antipsychotics dispensed for those aged 18 and younger between 1998 and 2008,” Kirkey writes of the Manitoba study. “Overall, antipsychotic use increased from 1.9 per 1,000 in 1999, to 7.4 per 1,000 in 2008. The total number of prescriptions for the newer antipsychotics also increased significantly, from 2,746 in 1999, to 21,320 in 2008.”

In the Times, L. Alan Sroufe,  professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, points to reasons doctors might be so inclined to try putting kids on drugs—and on why this tendency to prescribe isn’t, in the long run, good medicine. He cites finding published in 2009 from a study that had been going on for more than a decade:

“The study randomly assigned almost 600 children with attention problems to four treatment conditions,” Sroufe writes. “Some received medication alone, some cognitive-behavior therapy alone, some medication plus therapy, and some were in a community-care control group that received no systematic treatment. At first this study suggested that medication, or medication plus therapy, produced the best results. However, after three years, these effects had faded, and by eight years there was no evidence that medication produced any academic or behavioral benefits.”

Parents and teachers in my circle, and I suspect across the continent, will find these stories deeply unsettling. It’s not the first time these concerns have been brought to light, but clearly the healing professions and health policy leaders need to take a closer, critical look at what’s going on.