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Pill Popping Nation: Let Children be Children


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It was once expected that children would be playful, adventurous and boisterous. We used to have sayings like “boys will be boys,” or “let her be a kid.” Nowadays, though, an active child is said to be “disordered” or “mentally ill.” They are given labels like ADHD or bipolar and put on dangerous prescription and harsh antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal.

Now, some children genially do have psychiatric disorders. Sadly, it’s most likely the case that the bulk of them do not. According to Consumer Reports, the number of children on antipsychotics has tripled over the last 10 to 15 years. The Consumer Reports research shows that this increase isn’t because we suddenly have an outbreak of an epidemic of psychiatric disorders in children. The increase is because more and more psychiatrists are willing to proscribe these harsh drugs to children and teens, even prescribing them to children as young as 2.

Let’s face it, we live in a fast paced society where many parents feel overworked, overwhelmed and overscheduled.  Having a child who misbehaves at home or school can be extremely difficult.  A parent may even be told by a teacher or principal that the child needs to be medicated, so they take their children to psychiatrists with the hope of getting some help.  Little do they know that the psychiatrist is prescribing a drug for an off-label use or that the drug can have serious, devastating and potentially life changing side effects.

Risperdal is a particularly troublesome drug.  According to the New York Times, last year more than 389,000 children and teenagers were prescribed Risperdal. Of these patients, 240,000 were 12 years or younger.  The bulk of these prescriptions were to treat attention deficit disorders.  The problem is that Risperdal is not approved to treat attention deficit problems.  In fact, the American Psychiatric Association recently announced that doctors should not prescribe this kind of drug as first-line treatment for children and adolescents other than to treat psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or severe tic disorders.  

Not only is the efficacy of Risperdal called into question in the context of children and teens, but the drug also comes with serious side effects, including gynecomastia, movement disorders, diabetes, pituitary tumors and heart problems than can lead to death.  

Gynecomastia is a condition where males grow abnormally large breast tissue. Risperdal causes this condition by causing an increase in the hormone prolactin, which is the same hormone that allows women to produce breast milk.  The condition is generally irreversible and may require surgical correction or liposuction.

Because Risperdal causes an increase in the amount of prolactin the pituitary gland secretes, another issue that can arise is the growth of pituitary tumors. One study conducted by the FDA found 77 reports of pituitary tumors in patients using seven different antipsychotic drugs.  70% of these reports were in patiens taking Risperdal.

Risperdal can also lead to heart problems.  One such problem is sudden cardiac death due to an arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

Another potential side effect from Risperdal is movement disorders such as extrapyramidal symptoms (loss of control over movement) and tardive dyskinesia (involuntary, repetitive movements).  These movement disorders can often be irreversible.

Diabetes is yet another side effect of Risperdal.  This is because Risperdal can cause an increase in blood sugar levels.  In rare cases, Risperdal can even lead to extreme ketoacidosis (shortage of insulin) resulting in coma or death.

The point here isn’t to completely avoid antipsychotic drugs such as Risperdal. Some children and teens truly do need and benefit from them.  The point is to be wary and think twice before giving your children pills.  The point is to let children by children.

Sources:  New York Times – Use of Antipsychotics in Children Is Criticized

American Psychiatric Society – Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question

Web MD – Schizophrenia Drugs May Up Tumor Risk 

Consumer Reports – Are too many kids taking antipsychotic drugs? 

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