Behavioral Health

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The Rise of Psychiatric Diagnoses in Younger Kids

The Rise of Psychiatric Diagnoses in Younger Kids

Adults tend to look back on childhood as a carefree time of playing with friends, going to school, and being taken care of. Compared with the concerns that accompany adulthood, being a kid is a piece of cake, right?

So it's shocking to learn that a recent study found that the rate of antipsychotic medications given to kids 2 to 5 years old doubled between 1999 and 2007. Antipsychotic drugs typically are used to treat schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder, and other severe mental disorders, yet in this study also were given to kids diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorders (such as autism), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and disruptive behavior disorder.

While the number of younger kids affected still is very small, the growing trend alarms mental health experts. The study's authors, for instance, also report that fewer than half of the children in their study had received any mental health services, such as a mental health assessment or treatment from a psychotherapist or psychiatrist.

What This Means to You

About 1 in 5 children in the United States has an emotional or behavioral condition, according to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). But these often are problems like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and depression, which can respond well to early treatment with gentle, kid-friendly techniques like talk therapy.

Early diagnosis and treatment are key. Parents who worry that their child might be suffering from a mental health condition should first speak with their pediatrician or primary care provider, who can assess the child and then refer parents to a mental health specialist, if needed.

A child should receive a full mental health assessment from a specialist, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, before being put on any psychiatric medication, especially one as strong as an antipsychotic. In addition to taking a thorough medical history, the specialist will ask about the family situation and school environment, and if there is a family history of psychiatric problems.

If other options, such as talk therapy and less powerful medications, have been unsuccessful in treating a severe mental disorder, only then should mental health professionals turn to stronger pharmaceutical treatments.

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: December 2010