Writing for Scientific American on May 14th, author John Horgan pointedly labeled this alarming trend as one of "science's ugliest experiments." He wrote:
American psychiatrists have been carrying out what is in effect an enormous clinical trial involving millions of children. Physicians are medicating children with stimulants such as Ritalin, antidepressants such as Prozac, anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax, bipolar drugs such as lithium and antipsychotics such as Risperdal.This perturbing situation is tied to a large rise in the diagnosis of conditions such as ADHD, autism, and other childhood mental disorders. Yet in all likelihood, our kids are not getting sicker, we're simply learning more about these medical conditions, and thus diagnosing them more often.
In 1994, new standards for identifying autism were released. Soon after, autism rates jumped from about one child in every 2,000-5,000 to one in every 100. And a recent Korean study shows the rate even higher, at one in 38! What's more, these rates will likely jump again soon. Dr. Allen Frances of the Duke University School of Medicine explains why:
The autism "epidemic" is set to spread further starting in May 2013, when the next revision of the diagnostic manual (DSM 5) will be published. The DSM 5 definition of an "autistic spectrum" will cast an even wider net, capturing many people now considered to be normal or to have another disorder. Their symptoms will not have changed - just the label.It's good that more attention is being paid to disorders like autism, but many children are likely being wrongly diagnosed, and thus prescribed drugs with potentially adverse side effects whose long-term efficacy has yet to be substantiated.
This tendency to over-diagnose extends to ADHD. Two large studies, one conducted in the United States and another conducted in British Columbia, both discerned that the youngest children in their respective grades at school are far more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. Do many of them actually have the condition? Perhaps, but the likelier answer is no. They are simply younger and more immature than their other classmates.
And unfortunately, when the diagnosis is made, drugs are often prescribed all too easily, despite the fact that almost no studies have demonstrated their long-term effectiveness at improving peer relationships or easing behavior problems. Writing in the New York Times earlier this year, L. Alan Sroufe, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, goes further:
...in 2009, findings were published from a well-controlled study that had been going on for more than a decade, and the results were very clear. The study randomly assigned almost 600 children with attention problems to four treatment conditions. Some received medication alone, some cognitive-behavior therapy alone, some medication plus therapy, and some were in a community-care control group that received no systematic treatment. At first this study suggested that medication, or medication plus therapy, produced the best results. However, after three years, these effects had faded, and by eight years there was no evidence that medication produced any academic or behavioral benefits.Psychotropic medications are currently being prescribed wholesale to our nation's children. These drugs should be a last resort, not a first resort, especially when you consider that measures such as diet alteration and behavioral modification may be just as, if not more effective at treating certain conditions.