The practice of prescribing so-called psychotropic drugs to treat mental illnesses and mood disorders such as anxiety and ADHD in young children is on the decline, according to new research published in the journal Pediatrics. That could signal an increasing trend toward using behavioral therapies that don’t require drugs that may cause harmful side effects.
One in five American kids suffers from a mental health problem, with ADHD affecting about 4.2 million children between the ages of three and 17. Prescribing drugs like Adderall and Ritalin to very young children between the ages of six and 12 became increasingly common from the 1990s through the early 2000s, with prescription rates ballooning by 300 percent before reaching a peak in 2005. But researchers found that those numbers stabilized before falling back down to earth in recent years, as doctors’ groups issued tougher and more detailed drug prescription criteria for young children.
Recent studies have shown that behavioral health therapies — which typically involve training parents about how to properly interact with a child who has a mood disorder — lead to about the same behavioral improvement in children as medication does, but without causing the negative side effects that can be associated with ADHD drug use for some kids. Among very young children, ADHD medications have been linked to irritability and slow growth.
“Our findings underscore the need to ensure that doctors of very young children who are diagnosing ADHD, the most common diagnosis, and prescribing stimulants, the most common kind of psychotropic medications, are using the most up-to-date and stringent diagnostic criteria and clinical practice guidelines,” wrote the authors in the Pediatrics study on the declining use of drugs.
Still, as Time’s Alexandra Sifferlin points out, some doctors who bypass the behavioral therapy and training route for drugs do so because their patients’ parents don’t have a schedule that permits them to successfully complete the time-consuming therapy process.