Most of us need some medication or other at certain points in
our life. But in these more sophisticated, and commercial, times it
seems there is an ever-compelling rush for the pill bottle, not
only to deal with established illnesses but to treat all kinds of
less severe discomforts and discontents.
The use of medication to deal with the mental health problems of
children and young people raises particular concerns. Clearly, some
severe mental illnesses in children benefit from medication. And in
some instances where children become very agitated or distressed,
it may well be irresponsible for a medical practitioner not to
prescribe some form of medication. We know that 70 per cent of
children will show improvement in the primary symptoms of attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with medication, usually
Ritalin. This can be a great relief to the child and their parents
and teachers. However, 30 per cent do not improve.
Two key issues arise over the safety and prescription of drugs
and their use according to accurate diagnosis. We must remain
vigilant about the effect of drugs on the growing brains of
children and adolescents. We must also stay alert to the effective
monitoring of drugs. The recent alarm about the regulation and
prescription of the anti-depressant Seroxat and other similar drugs
to young people under the age of 18 is a case in point. In the past
year, about 8,000 young people have been treated with the drug, but
new research shows an increase in the rate of self-harm and
potentially suicidal behaviour when Seroxat is used.
Hyperactivity in young children and depression in adolescents
are two of the most common worries among parents and teachers.
Whether medication is suitable or effective for either depends on
accurate diagnosis. A small group of children do suffer from ADHD,
and some young people do experience clinical depression. Carefully
prescribed medication in these cases may help. However, the family
and school always need to be involved in the overall care of such
There is a much larger group of children who are not so
disturbed. They may be boisterous and restless as children, or they
may feel depressed as part of their adolescence. These children and
young people need the opportunity and time to grow at their own
pace and experience their own developmental struggles without being
prematurely or unnecessarily medicated.
Peter Wilson is director of YoungMinds, a mental health
charity for young people.