Psychiatric drugs surge among kids

During the early 1990s, the numbers of children and teenagers in the United States receiving prescriptions for psychiatric drugs rose markedly, a new study finds.

Julie M. Zito of the University of Maryland, Baltimore and her coworkers analyzed medical data on nearly 900,000 youngsters enrolled in Medicaid programs–in an unnamed mid-Atlantic or Midwestern state–or in a large health maintenance organization (HMO) in the Pacific Northwest. Psychiatric-drug use tripled at the HMO and in the Midwestern state, while it doubled in the mid-Atlantic state.

The overall proportion of kids and teens taking at least one psychiatric drug rose from 2.5 percent in 1987 to 6.2 percent in 1996, the scientists report in the January Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. This new rate of psychiatric medicine use nearly matches that of adults.

Ritalin and other stimulants for treating attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder were the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drugs for children in 1996, followed by antidepressants and anticonvulsants used for mood disorders.

The researchers say it’s unclear whether the rising use of psychiatric medications among children reflects mainly a growing emphasis on comprehensive mental-health care at early ages or an increasing reliance on drugs alone, without any talk or behavior therapy.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.