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Medication Nation

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By Judy Lin

Published Oct 1, 2007 8:00 AM


An estimated 5 million American children and adolescents take drugs such as Ritalin, Prozac and a host of other medications to treat behavioral, mental and learning disorders. Some say the drugs don't help and can even make things worse. Others claim the medicines are life-savers. Still others worry that their children are being used as guinea pigs. One thing is for sure: parents have a tough call to make, with no easy answers.

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Kate and Joe Miller want their 7-year-old son, Sam, to have friends, to enjoy school. But the other kids make fun of him. He thinks he's not smart. He hates school. He draws pictures of his school blowing up.

Sam can't pay attention. He barely made it through first grade, and he's still struggling in second. He can't keep up with his schoolwork. In class he talks and fidgets, gets up and wanders around the room.

His parents (whose names, along with their son's, have been changed for confidentiality) had Sam tested for a learning disability. None was found. So they hired a tutor. It didn't help. Finally, they took their son to a psychiatrist who concluded that Sam is "highly distractable" and needs medication.

The Millers were shocked. The last thing they want to do is give their little boy drugs. Joe is adamantly opposed — and angry — at the very idea of medicating Sam. Kate is starting to wonder if it might help.

"Sure I worry about the side effects [of psychiatric drugs]," she says, "but I'm fearful about his future. I want him to have confidence. I just want him to be happy."

The Millers' hopes for their child are universal, of course, but unfortunately, so is their plight. An estimated 5 million American children in the U.S. today are on psychiatric — also called psychotropic — drugs. The brand names, by now, are household names: Ritalin, Adderall and Concerta for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Wellbutrin for depression. Plus an assortment of other brand and generic medications to treat a wide range of behavioral, mental and learning disorders in children and adolescents.

And it seems that for every prescription, every worried parent and every little pill, there is an emotional and often heated opinion.

Some concerned parents, support groups and other critics are convinced that psychiatric drugs don't help and can actually hurt kids, arguing that children are being misdiagnosed and even experimented on by doctors and drug companies. Other parents and medical professionals are equally passionate in their belief that psychiatric medications are effective, even essential, in relieving debilitating conditions. In fact, proponents of this point of view say, too few kids are getting the medications they desperately need, due to fear and inadequate medical care.

Then there's the "drugs need scientific study" stance, which says psychotropic drugs have their place but need strict scientific testing. And there's the "something's got to be better than drugs" appeal that psychotherapy or even herbal remedies are the real answer to kids' psychological problems.

One thing is for certain: There are no easy answers, and the issue may be as painful for parents like the Millers as it is for the kids themselves. At UCLA, researchers and clinicians who work with troubled kids and their parents face the consequences and moral quandaries of a medicated nation every day. And they are committed to finding answers, because it's personal for them, too.

"Certainly among scientists that work in ADHD, there's clear evidence that medication is effective," says Susan Smalley M.A. '81, Ph.D. '85, a UCLA research geneticist whose lab is a world leader in using gene mapping to isolate the genetic origins of ADHD. But Smalley is a parent of three kids as well as a scientist, and even she admits, "I don't like to give my kids any kind of medication."

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