Poisoning our Children?

In the middle of the 20th century psychiatrists thought they may have found a solution to deviant and psychotic behavior: the lobotomy.   Easy to perform, patients often went from being violently insane into becoming docile and quiet.   However, the procedure left people a shell of what they used to be, or as the Soviet Union put it in abandoning the procedure in 1950 “people go from being insane to being idiots.”

Even more people are affected by a new psychiatric effort to take the anti-psychotic drugs that replaced the lobotomy and prescribe them to children who have behavioral problems.   Children often end up on a mix of medications, all designed to alter behavior in some way, usually to counter act side effects of other drugs being taken.  The result can be seen by considering this story in the New York Times, or watching this episode of Frontline.   Quite literally children are being treated with drugs whose efficacy has not been tested, and which can alter the children so much that they cannot live normal lives.   Since they were diagnosed as mentally ill in the first place, parents (and Doctors) often see mental illness as the reason for their difficulties, when in many  (perhaps most?)  severe cases it’s the “medications” that cause the problem

In some ways, this is a result of the inhumane way health care has been provided in the US.   Insurance companies, loathe to pay more than have to, have determined that a child psychiatrist usually needs at most 15 minutes to evaluate and assess a child.  That’s all they’ll pay.   Hospitals and clinics push doctors to see as many patients as possible so that they can pay their costs (including, of course, doctors’ salaries).   This is also a result of our culture.  We’ve been conditioned to think that medicines can cure anything.  Any ache, pain, or abnormality needs to be treated — and the pharmaceutical companies promise they can give us a “better life.”

Doctors, of course, complain that parents come in at wits end about their child’s behavior, often demanding something be given to make the child ‘normal.’   Therapy takes too long to work, after all.  Moreover, children develop at such different rates and in different ways that behaviors exhibited can be interpreted as being mental illness.   A hyperactive child or one with attention deficit disorder — conditions that often need no treatment or can be treated with non-psychotic drugs — can show behaviors that might be labeled bipolar disorder, autism, or some other malady thought to benefit from anti-psychotic medication.

So doctors under pressure from parents and insurance companies dash off a prescription, and the parent leaves hoping they now have the magic potion to make their child “normal.”   If it works, but the child has trouble sleeping, then the doctor prescribes something for that.   Soon there is weight gain, so medications are changed again.  The child then may seem anxious, so a new medication might be added.    Children might be on a regimen of ten drugs or so for their entire childhood, usually making them different from the rest, often thinking they have some deep down problem that would consume them should they go off their medication.  And, of course such powerful drugs can’t be dropped cold turkey, children need to be weaned off of them, and as they are the side effects of ending a medication may make it seem like it actually was needed.   For some, a diagnosis at 2 years old may mean a lifetime of possibly dangerous and unnecessary drugs.

Because studies are so rare and vague, we have no way of knowing how many children have their lives altered or even destroyed by such practices, nor do we know in how many cases the medications do some good.   We’re experimenting on our children, and we don’t know the impact of these powerful drugs on the long term psychological and physical development of the child.   But because smart doctors prescribe, and our culture sees medication as the cure to any problem, people go along with it.

Two things need to be accepted:  first, children need to learn to live with themselves as themselves.   If a child has a temper, is wired to react quickly and perhaps be anxious, that might just be who he or she is.    Young and unable to really understand or control behaviors, a child of this sort might violently misbehave, or have times of uncontrollable rage.   Now, in some cases mild medications may be necessary to help the child through this, but ultimately the child has to learn to control his or her temper, and deal with the fact that he or she has this kind of personality.  If a child is overly medicated so that his or her true self isn’t experienced, then medications may continue for life — the person will never discover who he or she really is.  Or, if the medications end when the child becomes an adult it’ll be much harder for the individual to handle his or her own personality — the lessons weren’t learned gradually while growing up, but would need to be learned all at once, with expectations higher.

Second, it takes all kinds to make up a world.   Normalcy is simply an average.    Each person brings a unique perspective to life, and contributes in his or her own way to a community.  Most importantly, though, children need to be shown patience.   The uncertainties of human and psychological development make it dangerous to see ‘abnormal’ behavior as an illness so early in life.   It could just be a quirk of that person’s development.

Yet, there are children who have serious chemical imbalances and really benefit from even strong anti-psychotic drugs.  How do you know when to make that call?   Well, last year my son, then age 6, had a series of difficult episodes at school.   We took him to a doctor to assess what the problem is.    She came in on a day she’d otherwise have partially off, and spent almost two hours talking with us and our son.   She listened.   She made a diagnosis (Tourettes, with ADHD symptoms), and recognized that we were very skeptical of medications.   She not only respected that, but praised our concern.   Ultimately we did choose a mild medication – Intuniv (guanfacine), which is usually used to fight high blood pressure.

We researched this decision intently (I check now and then for anything new — it seems a very safe drug, with few side effects and is neither an anti-psychotic nor a stimulant), have kept the dosage low.    He did show improvement, and most importantly our son’s personality has not changed.  He’ll still get angry, he’ll still be intense — he is definitely himself.  But problem behavior has become rare, he’s learned to control his actions most of the time, and he remains active, creative, inquisitive and academically well ahead of the second grade average.

So I’m not completely anti-medication, I don’t mean this as an extremist tirade.  But with children it’s really important parents and doctors take TIME to assess, and do what we can to cope with behaviors that are difficult.  Children do grow and learn, and sometimes maturity is what it takes for an especially intense child to learn how to operate effectively with his or her personality.  Also, from what I’ve read, I think parents should be VERY skeptical of anti-psychotics for children, or a regimen of any more than one drug at a time.     Children should be given every opportunity to be themselves, even if it’s sometimes hard on the adults.

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  1. #1 by len on September 3, 2010 - 21:53

    I can’t agree more. This is a good entry

  2. #2 by Lee on September 4, 2010 - 01:47

    I share your medication worries, although my children have been on various medications (all of which I have thoroughly researched as you did.) My worry is for the kids who don’t have someone who does that research for them. Kids in foster care have a really huge incidence of being medicated. One of my children was successfully able to have his meds dosage cut in 1/2 after being placed in our home. He does still need medical assistance with controlling some behaviors, but having a loving and stable environment was very very key to his emotional health.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on September 4, 2010 - 12:11

      It sounds like you’re giving those children a great gift — a loving home and efforts to assure they get the proper medical care. Kudos!

  3. #4 by mike lovell on September 5, 2010 - 02:35

    I’ve always been a bit skeptical on medications since I was in my mid- to late teens. I once was sent to a psychiatrist, after having gotten into some mild trouble, and being depressed over your usual teenage problems (the ones where you think youre problems are the worst anyone could possibly know, then you grow up and find out what real problems are..)

    within 15 minutes, the guy was already trying to prescribe Prozac. My mom saw no issue with this, and they put me on a low dose. I took them for maybe a month and took myself off them without anyone knowing. I chose to throw the daily pill out day after day rather than ingest it. And yet, despite not taking the drugs everyone, including my mother, saw what a remarkable difference I was showing some 3 months later… I had to drop the little bomb that the drugs made zero difference to me, it was just the changing circumstances and finding the ability to cope with my issues on my own that made the difference.

    I’m also not to thriled with the random ‘vote-ins’ (for lack of a better term) that the mental doctors association use to pick out what constitutes a new mental problem that now requires new drugs for it all. I also dont care much for the old rampant over prescription of drugs for ADHD, ADD, and other fad ‘mental disorders’ of the day.

    And while I’m not mpletely anti-medication, I myself dont go to the doctor because I don’t get sick. I’ve allowed my body to run its own immune system pretty well. But with my kids and certain infections they get, I’m all for them taking the anti-biotics (to completion)necessary to help their system out. But I will not send them to the doctor for every little sniffle either, demanding drugs like some people do. when its simple colds and sore throats, I let em suffer thru it and get better on their own.

    Good Post!

    • #5 by Scott Erb on September 5, 2010 - 04:06

      I’m with you, Mike. It was really hard to accept any medication for my son, even one that is really mild (nothing like prozac!). Now that I’ve turned 50 my wife is telling me to actually go get a physical. I’m resisting, but I suspect I’ll have to give in. At one point our child’s doctor was suggesting something stronger, maybe a sedative. I told how when I was about 12 to 15 I had some rough years, and nowadays I’d probably have been prescribed something. But I worked myself out of it, and am so glad I didn’t get medicated. I think she understood that this meant I was going to be there for my son — I didn’t want an easy medicated way out — and that I really didn’t want to think about anything stronger unless things got extremely bad (and they’ve been very good!) Thanks for the response!

  4. #6 by Diane on September 6, 2010 - 01:26

    There are so many outside influences which affect the kids, too, from the food they eat to the TV they watch to the super scheduled or lack of scheduled life they live. Those each can wreak havoc in a child.

    The system is terribly screwed up and the kids are paying. Insurance is disgusting, doctors are often pushed into caving and prescribing, and parents don’t know what is going on and many are too busy/tired/stressed or just not interested is alternatives, or facing the reality that sometimes they need to make changes too. More children need parents that do check things out and go that extra step, like you and your above responders.

  5. #7 by Jacob on September 7, 2010 - 02:31

    Very good blog Scott. I agree with you. I actually work at a group home for the mentally disabled. We are told the rule is, “the less medication the better”, sadly I do not think we stick to that rule very much. It seems that medication comes up as the top solution far too often when talking about client behavior problems. Now, we do have clients that really benefit from meds, but the side effects are often harsh. With most medication you do not have the power to calm down bad behavior problems without numbing and/or hurting other good qualities in the individual.

    There is a whole slew of problems when it comes to medication and child behavior problems. I think you hit on the ones we can really change, the parents need to use drug solutions as a last resort.

    Often, in the education system we have behavior problems because of the way we are being taught. The school system is so skewed to verbal linguistic learners, that when we have students who learn through visual or physical means, they are often left out and quickly become “problems” because of lack of stimuli. Instead of figuring out the way each individual learns we often try to make them learn our already established way, if they do not learn that way, we quickly assume there is something “wrong” with them instead of looking at ourselves. Sadly, medication is often the main solution.

  6. #8 by Juliano on September 11, 2010 - 22:48

    It is articles like this one which are the most damaging and toxic in my opinion. Why? Because they feign disgust with what IS very much so a completely disgusting vile system which feeds toxic drugs to innocent children who have to trust the idiot adults–including ‘loving’parents, and yet are disinformation!

    “A hyperactive child or one with attention deficit disorder — conditions that often need no treatment or can be treated with non-psychotic drugs — can show behaviors that might be labeled bipolar disorder, autism, or some other malady thought to benefit from anti-psychotic medication.”

    No, you are totally missing the essential point either knowingly or unknowingly—there IS no actual biological disorder called ‘ADHD’. It is a complete con–please Google this book–you can read it online:
    The ADHD Fraud: How Psychiatry Makes Patients “Of Normal Children”
    By Fred A. Baughman

    “Yet, there are children who have serious chemical imbalances and really benefit from even strong anti-psychotic drugs.”

    There are no medical tests existing that test for ‘chemical imbalance’ it is a con and is part of the overall myth of mental illness which you really should have insight of. You are close, but for some reason are still disinforming and thus supporting this racket. it is not a case of being “extremist” to see what is real from what is false.

    NEVER do the supporters of this racket ever question the culture you are living in and supporting and its brutal effects on children and people. You accept all that and yet charge your children with ‘chemical imbalance’ and whatnot.

    it is the most ugly vile Unloving thing we are doing to the young and to each other. But I get MOST angry when people like you SEEm to only go half way with this, and dont or refuse to see the roots of it—which is ignoreance, soullessness, and the worship of profit and status, and survival at all costs. TRY and begin looking at the story being told you. THAT is what is imbalanced not the poor children born into this fukin mess thats been going now for many many generations, and is now attacking very nature itself!

    • #9 by Scott Erb on September 11, 2010 - 23:23

      Well, when you have an extreme opinion you’re absolutely certain is true…you’re probably wrong. You need to really take all sides of the argument seriously. I was very skeptical of all of this until my son had rage attacks which got him essentially kicked out of activities he enjoyed. He simply would go out of control. He was ultimately diagnosed with Tourettes, showing ADHD symptoms, but we rejected stimulants in favor of a mild drug at a low dose with very few side effects, none of them psychological. The tics have disappeared for now, and he’s more in control. If things stay good, we’ll see how he does with no medication. But believe me, all humans are wired differently, and parents have to take a lot into account.

      I think if you read my blog on everything from consumerism to politics you’ll see I’m very critical of the culture I’m in. Yet when you give a rant, and point to one book and you deny what parents have experienced — children with real difficulties — then it’s hard to take you seriously. You don’t really give an argument, just accusations. So my reaction is to shake my head and chuckle and think “some people just need to go to extremes.” If you want your position to be taken seriously, you have to make a serious, reasonable argument, and listen to the other side too. If you rant, they’ll just rant back, and all sides will feel self-righteous (as you obviously do), but no one will really learn from each other.

  7. #10 by renaissanceguy on September 12, 2010 - 13:55

    I believe that ADD/ADHD is real, and that in many cases drugs are very useful in treating it. However, my experience as a teacher tells me. . .

    1. Children are being drugged too early. Most young kids are “hyper” and have short attention spans.

    2. Children are drugged too soon. Behavior modification should be tried first. Diet and sleep changes should be tried, too.

    3. Children are not monitored sufficiently. Certain doctors required me as a teacher to fill out periodic forms on how a student was doing on the drugs. Not only were symptoms checked and quantified, but side effects were reported. Often a change of medicine or a change of dosage was warranted. (Other doctors never once checked up on a kid to see how he or she was handling the drugs.)

    4. People in general do not make allowances for individual differences, as you pointed out, Scott.

    5. Drugs are used merely because they are convenient. It is easier to prescribe drugs than to provide therapy or to teach parents and teachers how to support and discipline a child with attention issues or behavioral problems.

    6. Too many children are drugged. In my experience a small fraction of kids with ADD/ADHD symptoms were significantly helped by medicine. The larger portion were either not helped much by it or were unable to deal with the side-effects. Some of the latter portion of kids were kept on drugs anyway.

    • #11 by Scott Erb on September 12, 2010 - 14:32

      I agree. I don’t think you can imagine how much I fought not to have anything prescribed for our seven year old. We did therapy for over a year, and I grilled the doctor, did internet research and held out until I finally felt his anger outbursts were doing real damage. Intuniv was our choice — we rejected stimulants due to the side effects, and intuniv was really a blood pressure medicine with almost no side effects. He was tired at first, but then got used to it. The anger incidents stopped, and he’s actually behaving very well.

      He’s been monitored, and I suspect the medication isn’t doing much (it’s also only 2 mg, most kids get 3 or 4)and his improved behavior is due to getting a year older. The doctor once wanted to prescribe a stimulant to help on some things, but we rejected it and she understood we weren’t going there. This year we’re keeping him on Intuniv for now because stress caused his tics and behaviors last year, and we want to make sure that doesn’t repeat. We’re watching for tics (they were the first symptom last year) and if he does well, we’ll take him off the medication.

      It’s hard to express how opposed I was to any medication, and it took a lot to get me to agree to one — I had been willing to go in to get him from school, ski with him because he once had a tantrum on the slopes during a ski class, and altered my schedule. I could see he is a more intense personality than our other son, and I wanted to help. But ultimately, only after a lot of discussions and research, did I give in (and only to a drug I thought was very safe). I am closer to RG and Juliano in my core sentiments.

      But I learned a lesson in humility. My distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and my repulsion at children getting drugs caused me to have a very extreme perspective. I learned that I should not judge other parents harshly, and that when used wisely it’s possible that some medications can help. I remain very skeptical — and wish that our culture didn’t demand so much conformity so that kids wired differently could develop and be socially active without pressure to conform. I do not ever want to use drugs to alter who he is — I want him to be intense and have the challenges in life that his personality provide. We all have that. Only when things got out of control and seemed to be getting worse did I realize that maybe the doctor was right that something could help. But I remain skeptical!

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