The use of psychotropic prescription drugs to treat preschoolers with mental health disorders appears to be leveling off, according to a study published in the Sept. 30 online Pediatrics.
According to a news release, researchers from Ohio’s Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center analyzed data from two national surveys involving more than 43,000 2- to 4-year-olds that collected information on patient visits to office-based physician practices and hospital-based outpatient clinics throughout the U.S.
Study investigators found that overall, the use of psychotropic drugs such as stimulants and antidepressants peaked in 2002 to 2005, and then leveled off from 2006 to 2009, even though diagnoses for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, disruptive behavior disorders, and depression increased over the same time period.
“The likelihood of receiving a behavioral diagnosis increased in 2006 to 2009, but this was not accompanied by an increased propensity toward psychotropic prescriptions,” said Tanya Froehlich, MD, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s and the study’s senior author, in the news release.
“In fact, the likelihood of psychotropic use in 2006 to 2009 was half that of the 1994 to 1997 period among those with behavioral diagnosis,” added Froehlich.
The study suggests that doctors may be turning to such treatments as behavioral therapy and counseling instead of psychotropic drugs that alter mood or behavior. In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), issued a statement approving the use of these medicines in children as young as 4 only after behavioral intervention failed.
Other reasons for the decline, suggested the researchers, are a greater awareness on the part of parents and physicians of the dangers associated with some of the commonly prescribed psychotropic drugs. In addition, they cite the FDA-issued warnings in the mid- to late-2000s advising the public of the risks of suicidal thoughts and adverse heart-related symptoms.
Study authors acknowledge that additional research is needed to better understand the effects of psychotropic drug use among very young children.
”Our findings underscore the need to ensure that doctors of very young children who are diagnosing ADHD, the most common diagnosis, and prescribing stimulants, the most common psychotropic medications, are using the most up-to-date and stringent diagnostic criteria and clinical practice guidelines,” said Froehlich.
“Furthermore, given the continued use of psychotropic medicines in very young children and concerns regarding their effects on the developing brain, future studies on the long-term effects of psychotropic medication use in this age group is essential,” added Froehlich.