Medicalizing Children and Adolescents By Irit Shimrat
On February 26, award-winning journalist and author Robert Whitakecame to speak at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver as part of its Adult Education program. His topic was “Medicalizing Children and Adolescents.” Janet CurryBarbara Mintzesand Tony Stanton also spoke briefly. (Tony ran the only medication-free residential program in North America for children and adolescents. Hugely successful, it has been de-funded due to pressure from drug companies.)
Janet Curry introduced her own story by saying, “I’m going to emotionalize the data a bit.”
Suffering from insomnia, she got a prescription for Imovaine (zopiclone) and was told it was “not addictive.” Though she used the drug very judiciously, she experienced panic attacks and serious physical symptoms upon withdrawal. She commented that detox centres know nothing about psych drugs. She then spoke about the common practice of medical journal articles being ghostwritten by pharmaceutical company employees. Banding together, consumers (of non-psychiatric drugs) have forced drug companies to acknowledge that this happens. The impact of psychiatric drugs, says Curry, is “a big, shocking secret; a big lie.”
Barbara Mintzes’s job at the UBC Therapeutics Initiative looks at the need for regulation in
the drug industry. She applauded Whitaker’s courage in “speaking truth to power.” Mintzes spoke about DES (Diethylstilbestrol) – a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen that was prescribed to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, premature labour, and related complications of pregnancy. Women who took DES during pregnancy were later found to have an increased risk of breast cancer, and their daughters suffered from increased risks of vaginal, cervical and breast cancer, as well as fertility problems and other health issues. This information was suppressed so as “not to alarm the public.” She then spoke briefly about psychiatry’s readiness to diagnose children. She ended by telling us that the Therapeutics Initiative has been de-funded because it doesn’t accept drug industry money.
Child and adult psychiatrist Tony Stanton has worked in community mental health and has
studied and supervised child psychiatry. Says Stanton, “You can’t connect with human beings if you embalm yourself with drugs.” He joked that he is indebted to Nancy Reagan for her “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign. Children aged five to 14 took part in Tony’s residential program. These were California’s most behaviourally disturbed kids, generally described as hopeless. Many came to the program on six to eight psychiatric drugs. Staff weaned them off all drugs in just two months. The aggressive behaviour most came in with disappeared after the weaning; the kids no longer felt they needed to protect themselves with this behaviour. Staff members told Stanton that after the kids came off the meds, it was fantastic to work with them: “It’s so rewarding. They come alive.” This despite the kids’ bitterness, after coming off, at realizing their childhood had been stolen.
Robert Whitaker told us that the childhood diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder was
invented in 1980. No prior society, he added, has medicated kids. “This is a profound thing to do. We are changing how kids think, feel, behave, move around in the world. More than 10 percent of US kids are medicated. Fully one-quarter of first-year students at the better colleges are diagnosed and drugged. We are changing childhood.”
There has been grossly insufficient research on the long-term effects of psych drugs on kids.
Most protocols are based on six-week placebo trials. We need to ask, are we helping kids grow up? Thrive? Function better? Enjoy life?
Psychiatric drugs are often compared to insulin. What parent wouldn’t give their child insulin
1 See madinamerica.com2 See psychmedaware.org and pharmawatchcanada.wordpress.com3 See UBC Therapeutics Initiative at www.ti.ubc.ca
if he or she was diabetic? But diabetes is a real disease, whose existence was discovered long before its cure. Psychiatric diagnoses, on the other hand, are derived from seeing how drugs act on the brain. Antipsychotics like Haldol and thorazine block dopamine and subdue schizophrenics; therefore schizophrenia must be due to too much dopamine activity.
In fact, this has long been known to be untrue. A 2003 study by the US National Institute of
Mental Health (NIMH) found no evidence that dopamine overactivity had anything to do with schizophrenia.
Depression is popularly believed, and widely advertised, to be caused by low serotonin levels
in the brain. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs – the now not-so-new generation of antidepressant drugs) raise serotonin levels, and appear in short-term studies to reduce depression. Therefore depression must be due to low serotonergic activity. In fact, it has been known for some time that depression has nothing to do with serotonin.
1987 saw the introduction of Prozac, based on these false serotonin claims, despite the
complete absence of a shred of compelling evidence.
The American Psychiatric Association admitted in a 2011 journal article that the “chemical
imbalance notion” was “an urban legend.” Officials at Massachusetts General Hospital, which boasts the number one psychiatric facility in the USA, have admitted that these drugs are not fixing any known pathology.
Neuroscientist Steven Hyman, formerly the director of NIMH, wrote a paper called “Initiation
and Adaptation: A paradigm for Understanding Psychiatric Drugs,” in which he explained that when normal brain function is perturbed by psychiatric drugs, the brain adapts in an attempt to compensate. The resultant brain abnormalities are responsible for the creation of actual chemical imbalances.
The drugs, Whitaker told us, do the exact opposite of what they are intended for: they are the
Kids with no known pathology are given drugs that cause their brains to change – to work
abnormally. In 1980, the APA formally adopted the medical model of mental illness. In 1987, they invented ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). There has never been any evidence that this is a real condition, only hypotheses. Again we see a “disease” that is actually a construct based on treatment. Psychostimulants such as Ritalin “work” by reducing movement and speech as well as “disturbance.”
In the short-term, ADHD kids on stimulants focus better on some rote tasks in school. They
also interact less with others, quickly becoming socially isolated. They lose self-esteem. No benefits are seen, even short-term, in kids’ ability to write essays or solve problems. If they stop taking stimulants, their ADHD comes back in a more severe form than they were initially treated for.
It has been known since 1994 that stimulants don’t produce lasting improvements in anything.
The first long-term NIMH study showed no evidence of long-term efficacy. When kids treated with stimulants were compared to kids receiving talk therapy alone, they were found to be doing somewhat better after 14 months. These study results were trumpeted everywhere.
But long-term results were not cited. After three years, stimulant use was a significant marker
of deterioration. The kids had increasing symptoms relative to the talk-therapy group. After six years, the drugged group had functional impairment and worse symptoms. Scientists in British journals spoke freely about the total absence of beneficial effects.
Kids on Ritalin and similar drugs have been found to be 10 times more likely to perform
below age level in school. Apart from increased ADHD symptoms, they suffered from elevated blood pressure, motor abnormalities, liver disorder, tics, mania, OCD and paranoia and psychosis.
Moreover, treating kids with stimulants sets them up for mood swings: “An eight-year-old boy
fidgets in school and is given stimulants that create mood swings. He is diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder (BAD) and given a drug cocktail. He has begun a career as a mental patient.”
Then there are the antidepressants, now given to one in every 250 American children. Use of
the “new” SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) antidepressants (such as Prozac, Paxil, etc.) is based on the notion that levels of dopamine activity are responsible for depression. When SSRIs are applied, dopamine activity is increased, and the brain tries to put on the brakes by decreasing its own dopamine production.
Remember that depression never used to be diagnosed in adolescents; moodiness is a normal
teen thing. But in the1990s, drug companies found that the adult market for SSRIs was saturated. Kids were an untapped market. And suddenly it was “discovered” that kids can be clinically depressed. Studies showed that the older antidepressants (tricyclics) didn’t work on adolescents; SSRIs, however, were seen as effective.
The studies that resulted in the mass drugging of children with SSRIs were biased, says
Whitaker. Data was falsified and studies with negative outcomes were not published. In 1994, the highly respected medical journal The Lancet condemned the published studies for scientific fraud and abuse of trust, stating categorically that SSRIs harm kids.
In 2004 the FDA held hearings on suicide risk in adolescents taking SSRIs. They rejected six
manufacturers, but approved Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of Prozac. Eli Lilly published study results that excluded information on both kids who did well on placebo and those who didn’t do well on fluoxetine (Prozac). Doctors were paid by Big Pharma to lie about study results.
Children are increasingly given SSRI antidepressants, despite an increased risk of suicide
that is well-recognized by regulatory bodies but ignored in the mainstream media. Other effects include seizures, akathisia, psychosis, mania, depression, apathy and anxiety. Long-term use causes cognitive impairment, producing chronic, treatment-resistant patients.
Coming off the drugs does not alleviate symptoms; the brain does not correct for the
Rates of “conversion” from a diagnosis of ADHD to one of BAD run as high as 25 to 50
percent. This has directly resulted in a juvenile BAD boom. In 1975 it was commonly accepted that BAD only happens after age 13 and is rare in teens. In the five cases of mania diagnosed in kids in 1976, at least three of them had previously been treated with Ritalin. Seven of the nine kids in the next study were previously treated with stimulants or antidepressants. That number keeps increasing. Drugs, say the clinicians, can “unmask” the disease: “We can use SSRIs as a diagnostic tool.”
For kids on antidepressants, the risk of “conversion” to BAD was much higher. In studies,
Prozac was seen to cause mania; placebos, of course, caused none.
In 1995, a researcher at Massachusetts General declared that kids could become bipoloar at
age three. Why 1995? Atypical antipsychotics (such as risperidone, the predecessor of olanzapine, loxapine, seroquel and similar drugs) were coming to market. The trouble wasProblematically, there was only a small market for them. A drug company called Jantzen provided scientists with $1.3 million to validate childhood BAD as a chronic disorder. Kids were supposed to stay on the drugs for life. In the long term, these kids present a picture of severely ill, treatment-resistant patients, prone to rapid-cycling BAD.
Increasingly, children are now given atypical neuroleptic (“antipsychotic”) drugs. A profound moral question, Whitaker told us, arises from all of these diagnoses and the
resulting drugging. We need to see if caregivers can point to studies showing that psychiatric drugs improve kids’ lives. “The great joy of growing up is coming to know your mind; seeing what you can make of yourself.”
There is much evidence that these drugs do harm. If there’s no evidence that they’re
helping, do we have a moral responsibility to make a change?
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Biosketch Catherine A. Peterson Department of Nutrition& Exercise Physiology CURRENT POSITION 2009- present Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences, Department Nutritional Sciences, University EDUCATION Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Wisconsin- Madison. Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign , Division of Nutritiona