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Medication - the low hanging fruit

Posted Mar 05 2010 12:00am
There was a strange book review in the New York Times last week by Abigail Zuger. She managed to heap praise while smugly writing with a "didn't I tell you so" attitude on Judith Warner's new book, We've Got Issues; Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.

Strange because the reviewer took such obvious delight in Ms Warner's sadder but wiser girl perspective about how she naively thought that the overmedication of children was a fact, and gosh, six years later she couldn't find a parent out there who was thrilled about medicating her with drugs. This is news?

Dr. Zuger, an assistant medical professor at Columbia University, is entitled to her opinions, but she is unfortunately trying to present her opinions as medical truth. They are just opinions but will be construed as fact because she's a doctor. Treating troubled children is more than symptom management for a calmer classroom: the medications seem actually to change the structure of the brain, helping it develop in what all evidence indicates is the right direction. More children in treatment should spell the beginnings of a healthier adult world.

What? Dr. Zuger is equating treatment with drug taking, not with treating the underlying problem. The "changes the brain for the better" argument is dangerous thinking and has no scientific basis but it sure is promoted by pharmaceutical companies. They, together with medical professionals pushing the enhanced brain function, have turned college students on to the perceived benefits of self-medicating prescription drugs for the purposes of competitive advantage. (Mother's tip: Dr. Abram Hoffer's niacinimide remedy for schizophrenia gives you focus with side benefits, not side effects.)

More children in treatment will lead to even more children in unnecessary treatment as our college students have demonstrated. There is a "me, too" effect here, and who can blame them? Similarly, if I were a mother of a school age child and observed that all the other kids had this competitive advantage, I would be tempted to ask why should my child be denied this harmless drug that protects the brain and increases focus? That's discrimination, isn't it?

Dr. Zuger goes out of her way to paint a disparaging picture of naive but caring twits like me who think that young children's mental health should be managed in a different way. After all, almost nothing is known about the effects of antipsychotic medications on developing brains, reason enough to stay away from them. The effects on developed adult brains are pretty awful, the effectiveness of the medications are being widely questioned by science, and then there is the obesity problem. Why would we foist the same problems on children?

The answer to why we do this despite knowing the risks is found in the same article. There are only 7000 child psychiatrists in the United States. Lack of insurance and/or geographical access to psychiatrist means that most children will never see a psychiatrist, or else that one psychiatrist you do have access to is going be extremely overworked. Time, money and access being a problem, it's cheaper for psychiatry to go for the low hanging fruit. Medication is that low-hanging fruit.

I see it this way. Your child (or the child in you if you are an adult) is being sacrificed for the "easy" solution, which is always the cheap solution when society is looking for mass "fix-its." Mental health, unfortunately, does not lend itself well to one size fits all solutions. Increasing the number of child psychiatrists is a good idea if children and families are helped to find non-drug ways of dealing with their problems. (The job I naively thought psychiatrists were suppposed to be doing in the first place.) If it leads to a proportional increase in the number of children on psychiatric drugs, the potential benefit has been lost.

So, let's call medication what it is, which is a cheap intervention, but let's not pretend that it is something more noble than it is or that medication will somehow "protect the brain" when there are other therapies and ideas out there that work and which don't produce side-effects. The poorer you are, the better your chances that you'll be handed a drug and told to go away.
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