Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Are Children Overmedicated?
By Thomas Insel on June 6, 2014
A recent symposium at the Carter Center featured a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that as many as 10,000 toddlers may be receiving psychostimulant medication, like methylphenidate (Ritalin).1 The media reports of this, like many past reports, decried the overmedication of children. The numbers are notable.
The latest estimate from the National Center for Health Statistics reports that 7.5 percent of U.S. children between ages 6 and 17 were taking medication for “emotional or behavioral difficulties” in 2011-2012.2 The CDC reports a five-fold increase in the number of children under 18 on psychostimulants from 1988-1994 to 2007–2010, with the most recent rate of 4.2 percent.3 The same report estimates that 1.3 percent of children are on antidepressants. The rate of antipsychotic prescriptions for children has increased six-fold over this same period, according to a study of office visits within the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey.4 In children under age 5, psychotropic prescription rates peaked at 1.45 percent in 2002-2005 and declined to 1.00 percent from 2006-2009.5
Taken together, what do these numbers mean? A common interpretation: children with behavioral or emotional problems are being overmedicated by psychiatrists too busy to provide therapy, at the request of parents too busy to provide a healthy home environment. A corollary of this interpretation is to blame schools too busy to provide recess or activities for fidgety boys. And usually the blame extends to the pharmaceutical companies that market medications in pursuit of profits.