Overprescription of Antipsychotic Drugs Causing Public Health Crisis
Antipsychotic drugs are being prescribed to an ever-increasing number of adolescents and young adults, and many of them are being prescribed for off-label purposes. But these over-prescriptions are putting youngsters at risk, though we’re slow as a society to change our med-heavy ways.
These powerful medications are being prescribed to young people with attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition the drugs are not approved to treat.
According to researchers from Columbia University in New York, the percentage of teens using antipsychotics rose from 1.10% in 2006 to 1.19% in 2010. Among young adults aged 19 to 24, the percentage rose from 0.69% to 0.84%. 
For the study, research psychiatrist at Columbia Dr. Mark Olfson and his colleagues analyzed prescription data from 2006, 2008, and 2010, as well as records from 2009 combining pharmacy and medical claims information. The records spanned prescriptions filled at approximately 60% of all retail pharmacies in the U.S.
About 270,000 prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs, including Abilify (aripiprazole), Risperdal (risperidone), Seroquel (quetiapine), Zyprexa (olanzapine) were dispensed to younger children, 2.14 million to older children, 2.80 million to adolescents, and 1.83 million to young adults in 2010. Among children 18 and under, the most common reason for antipsychotics was ADHD.
“This is concerning because evidence of anti-psychotics’ efficacy for treating a number of behavioural health disorders is lacking,” said Dr. Meredith Matone, a research scientist with PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Antipsychotics are approved to treat psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, as well as for easing aggression in cognitively impaired youth. By prescribing these medications to young people for unapproved uses, doctors may be causing them irreparable brain damage. In fact, U.S. pediatric health advisers have been trying to warn the public about the known and unknown dangers of such widespread drugging of children.
As we reported earlier this month, much of what we thought we knew about depression has turned out to be untrue. For years, the public has believed that low serotonin levels caused depression, even though scientists never said that was the case. What is known is that depression is helped by increasing serotonin levels, not that low serotonin itself is the cause.
Because of this, many doctors and experts fear that antidepressants serve as little more than a bandaid on a gaping wound, merely tackling the symptoms without getting at the root cause of depression, worsening the problem in the process. Antidepressants actually “work” by overdosing the brain with serotonin, possibly damaging the brain’s functioning in the process. You can imagine the overwhelming impact this might have on a young, developing brain.
“After several weeks on psychoactive drugs, the brain’s compensatory efforts begin to fail, and side effects emerge that reflect the mechanism of action of the drugs. For example, the SSRIs may cause episodes of mania, because of the excess of serotonin. Antipsychotics cause side effects that resemble Parkinson’s disease, because of the depletion of dopamine (which is also depleted in Parkinson’s disease),” explains medical journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Whitaker.
“As side effects emerge, they are often treated by other drugs, and many patients end up on a cocktail of psychoactive drugs prescribed for a cocktail of diagnoses.”
It’s not just the brain that’s affected by psychiatric drugs. In 2010, PsychiatricTimes.com published a piece concerning a pair of research articles which described the impact of the medications on children and adolescents. In the first report, “a large and broadly representative group” of child and adolescent patients was followed for 10 weeks after initiating treatment with olanzapine (Zyprexa), risperidone (Risperdal), quetiapine (Seroquel), or aripiprazole (Abilify). During those 10 weeks, the average weight increase ranged from 18.7 pounds (olanzapine) to 9.7 pounds (aripiprazole).
Such substantial and rapid weight gain can put youngsters at greater risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes later on in life. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in April found that initiating antipsychotics may increase a child’s risk for Type II diabetes by about 50 percent. If a child is also taking an antidepressant, that risk doubles. 
Reports of deaths and dangerous side effects linked to antipsychotics have increased dramatically in recent years as well. A USA Today study of data collected from 2000 to 2004 uncovered at least 45 deaths of children in which an atypical antipsychotic was listed in the FDA database as the “primary suspect.” There were also 1,328 reports of serious and sometimes life-threatening side effects. 
Abuot the Author
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.
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