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Matters of Opinion: Kids on Drugs


Published Oct 1, 2007 8:00 AM

"We give our kids drugs to fight depression, control ADD and treat a host of other maladies. But do they work? And, if not, should we keep trying to make them work, or are there better ways to treat our children's neurological and behavioral disorders?"

Millions of school-age children, teens and young adults in America are on psychiatric — also called psychotropic — drugs such as Ritalin, Prozac, Zoloft and many others. Do they help or hurt? And are they even necessary? We asked members of the Bruin family to weigh in on a topic that affects us all in one way or another. For more on drugs and our kids, see our feature story, "Medication Nation," and tell us what you think.

"The question is not whether these drugs 'work'; this is far from a black-or-white issue. Given the complexity of the brain, and the huge gaps in our knowledge of it, it's a miracle that there are drugs that improve the quality of life for children suffering from these disorders, albeit imperfectly. Are there better ways to treat our children's psychological disorders? Of course there are — we need to develop better drugs, and this will require time. Scientific research is an excruciatingly slow process, but we shouldn't abandon it just because we can't develop a 'quick fix' on our first try. Instead, we must continue to develop our resources toward improving our understanding of the brain, which will ultimately lead to more effective treatments."

Molly Crockett '05 University of Cambridge Gates Cambridge Scholar National Science Foundation Fellow

"There are several fundamental problems with the rush to drug as many children as possible. The diagnostic categories for children are too broadly and vaguely defined, which permits considerable over-diagnosis (the false-positive problem) and, further, results in problems of unreliability in which clinicians frequently can't agree on what is the correct diagnosis for a given child. Consequently, efforts to measure the short- and long-term effects of medication on particular presumed disorders of children are undermined. The over-diagnosing and medicating of youthful misbehavior may serve the interests of powerful industries and professions, but not necessarily the well-being of children."

Stuart Kirk Professor of Social Welfare UCLA School of Public Affairs

"Drugs should be the absolute last resort. I see kids at our school who were once very hyperactive now walking around like zombies. They may not be terrors in the classroom anymore, but they're also devoid of personality. We need to be willing to invest our time and care for these children and not look for quick fixes."

Stella Lee '02, M.Ed. '06 Kindergarten Teacher Los Angeles Unified School District/ MacArthur Park Primary Center

"From an M.D.'s standpoint, meds work for true cases of ADHD/ADD and possibly for other psych disorders like depression and OCD, but from a holistic standpoint, it's hard to make generalizations like this. It's really case by case, and there are a host of other modalities that need to be instituted, either prior to or concomitantly with meds. Meds are also met with side effects that need to be taken into consideration. Some folks respond very nicely to meds, others not so much. For many, tolerance develops or compliance is an issue. Psychiatry is not hard medicine. There is a pretty big component of trial and error that's involved. So, in general, it's situation-dependent."

Harry Chang M.D. '03 Attending Physician in Pediatrics ValleyCare Olive View-UCLA Medical Center

"It's case-specific. I think meds coupled with family therapy would likely produce a much better effect than just meds alone. I do believe that, in most cases, there is a nature and a nurture component, so both areas need to be addressed. If kids are treated medically for depression, but their family environment is unhealthy, their chances at overcoming depression might be hampered."

Rosa Chen '95 Administrative Assistant David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA Department of Cardiology

"The issue is not whether these medications "work" ... they basically do, in the sense of causing functional improvement in a statistically reliable way in studies of large groups of people. The more important question is whether the culture of medicine has become too mindless and mechanical in approaching mental health issues. Given the intensity of backlash against the use of psychiatric medications in children by the general public, some of it quite irrational, the medical establishment is certainly aware that they have lost the trust of a significant portion of the population. There seems to be a more or less grudging acknowledgment that medications as the primary treatment option for mental health-related problems is less than optimal. The main obstacle at this point is that the culture of medical research is still so intensely committed to materialist/molecular perspectives with respect to solutions for all health-related problems. That makes it very difficult for approaches utilizing primarily mind- or awareness-based treatments to get real traction. But that seems to be changing. I predict that moving forward in stressing drug-based treatments for mental health-related problems will become increasingly modified by the accentuation of awareness-centered approaches. So there are definitely grounds for hope that things will change, and more non-materialist perspectives will become increasingly mainstream and accepted."

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. Research Psychiatrist David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences