Are Children Medicated for Convenience, or Necessity?

Story at-a-glance

  • A BBC documentary examines what drives parents to put their kids on potent brain-altering drugs with potentially dangerous side effects
  • Many children today are drugged for “parental convenience,” as opposed to being treated for serious mental disorders
  • Many mood and behavior problems can be addressed safely and effectively without drugs


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Millions of children are taking powerful mind-altering drugs, often before they're even old enough to attend school. The long-term effects of psychotropic drugs on children are largely unknown, while serious short-term side effects are unfortunately common, including seizures, suicidal ideation, violent behavior and more.

According to WebMD,1 nearly five million American children have been labeled with some type of serious mental disorder. In any given year, 20 percent of children will be diagnosed with a mental illness.

The most common diagnosis for kids age 3 to 17 is ADHD, followed by behavioral problems, anxiety and depression,2 and many of these children are being prescribed powerful and potentially dangerous psychiatric drugs.

The BBC documentary "America's Medicated Kids" takes a look at several families with children on psychiatric medications. Journalist Louis Theroux gets a close look at some of these kids and their families by actually living with them for a time, hoping to understand what drives parents to put their kids on drugs.

Bad Behavior or Pathology?

Theroux identifies a fine line between ordinary bad behavior and pathology and poses the question of whether the latest drugs are taking the place of "good old-fashioned parenting."3

What happens to children when they are medicated at a very young age, during some key formative years? Do they grow up never knowing who they really are? What passions might they have developed were it not for the drug's influence?

Psychotropic agents can influence a child's brain development, and chronic drug exposure during sensitive periods can produce alterations of his or her nervous system that have unpredictable and potentially harmful effects.

Behavioral problems in children—including what might appear to be serious mental disorders—are frequently related to improper diet, emotional upset and exposure to toxins. These underlying issues should be resolved before suppressing symptoms with potentially dangerous medications.

The Diagnosis of Mental Illness in Children Is Subjective

The diagnosis of mental illness in children is far from an exact science. Modern psychiatry has expanded its reach to the point that even the most normal of emotions and mental states are now labeled as one "disorder" or another.

In many cases a child is labeled with a "disorder" such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) based on subjective observations of behaviors that nearly all children exhibit at some time or another, such as excessive fidgeting or becoming angry after losing a game.

Ironically many of these behaviors are a result of forcing children into unhealthy patterns like sitting in a chair at their desk for 6-8 hours, which will not only contribute to the restlessness diagnosed as ADHD, but also increase their risk for a variety of diseases.

The Rampant Misuse of Psychiatric Drugs

Data from the National Health Interview Survey (2011-2012)4 revealed that 7.5 percent of American children ages 6 through 17 take a medication prescribed for emotional or behavioral difficulties.

In recent years, there has been a stunning increase in off-label use of atypical antipsychotics. While most are approved only for the treatment of serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, this class of drugs is now increasingly prescribed for children anxiety, insomnia, and/or behavior problems.

Children as young as 18 months are now receiving them, despite the fact that the diseases they're designed to treat rarely develop before adolescence.

Sales of antipsychotic drugs for children have increased eight-fold since 1993. Sales to teens have quintupled, while adult sales doubled in the same time frame. In 2008, an estimated $6 billion was spent on off-label antipsychotics in the US, of which $5.4 billion was for uses based on uncertain science.

Aggressive, and oftentimes illegal, marketing by drug companies is believed to be a major contributing factor to skyrocketing misuse of antipsychotic drugs in children. In recent years, a number of major manufacturers of atypical antipsychotics has been caught illegally marketing their drugs for unapproved uses in children and adolescents.

Foster children are prescribed psychotropics at a rate 12 times higher than other children on Medicaid. The high rates of psychotropic drug use among foster children and poor children are likely a direct result of drug company tactics that target doctors in the Medicaid program, influencing them to prescribe more drugs to this population.

ADHD Is Overdiagnosed and Overmedicated

ADHD seems to have become the catchall designation for children who do not "behave well," which is the subject of another excellent documentary, The Drugging of Our Children. One study5 estimated that 20 percent of children have likely been misdiagnosed, which amounts to nearly one million children in the US alone.

In 2010, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claimed that one in 10 American children had ADHD, representing a 22 percent increase since 2003.6

Many of these kids are diagnosed based on highly subjective observations of parents, teachers and guardians, and about two-thirds of those children were put on some form of prescription medication. In 2011, 48.4 million prescriptions for ADHD stimulants were written, up 39 percent from 2007.

ADHD drugs are indeed powerful mind-altering  hard-core drugs, regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as controlled substances because they can lead to dependence.

ADHD drugs include amphetamines (Adderall) and stimulants (Ritalin and Concerta)7 with well-established risks, including heart attacks, strokes, and seizures. ADHD drugs can also stunt your child's growth or delay puberty.

It isn't just stimulants that have exploded in number—benzodiazepines (for anxiety) and narcotics (for pain) are on the rise as well, and all pose serious risks for children. Taking a narcotic painkiller for 180 days or longer can increase your risk of depression by 53 percent.

ADHD drugs, by definition, stimulate a child's central nervous system and may interfere with the intricate workings of his or her brain and personality. In 2011, ADHD drugs were responsible for nearly 23,000 emergency room visits, representing a 400 percent increase in just six years. For example, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA),8 Ritalin's potential side effects include the following:

Sudden death in people who have heart problems or heart defects Stroke and heart attackIncreased blood pressure
New or worse behavior and thought problemsNew or worse bipolar illnessNew or worse aggressive behavior or hostility, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors
New psychotic symptoms (such as hearing voices, believing things that aren't true, paranoia)New manic symptomsIncreased heart rate
Slowing of growth (height and weight) in childrenSeizuresEyesight changes or blurred vision

Nutrition Is Often Overlooked in Children with Mental Health Issues

Total Video Length: 1:13:21

Download Interview Transcript

Behavioral problems clearly do exist, and do appear to be more prevalent among children today than in decades past. The question is, what's causing them? There are many contending culprits, including poor nutrition and environmental toxins ranging from food and vaccine additives to agricultural chemicals. Mental health therapy is certainly a preferable treatment to risky psychoactive drugs, but even that typically fails to address basic nutrition, which I believe is a key factor.

We know that the food choices of most children and adults today are incredibly poor, and how can you possibly expect a child to have normal behavior if he is eating refined grains, sugars, and chemical-laden processed foods that are largely devoid of nutrients? If your child struggles with emotional or behavioral difficulties—diagnosed with a mental disorder or not—I strongly recommend your addressing the following factors:

  • Too much sugar. Many studies have demonstrated the connection between a high-sugar diet and poor mental health. High sugar and starchy carbohydrates lead to excessive insulin release, which can result in falling blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia. In turn, hypoglycemia causes your brain to secrete glutamate in levels that can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety, and panic attacks. Additionally, sugar fans the flames of chronic inflammation in your body.
  • Gluten sensitivity. The evidence is quite compelling that gluten sensitivity may be at the root of a number of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including ADHD. According to a 2011 study,9 celiac disease is "markedly overrepresented among patients presenting with ADHD," and a gluten-free diet has been shown to significantly improve behavior in children. The study went so far as to suggest celiac disease should be added to the ADHD symptom checklist.
  • Too few beneficial bacteria. As explained by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a medical doctor with a postgraduate degree in neurology, toxicity in your gut can flow throughout your body and into your brain, where it can cause symptoms of autism, ADHD, depression and numerous other mental disorders. Reducing gut inflammation is imperative when addressing mental health issues,10 so optimizing your child's gut flora is a critical step. There is even research underway to investigate whether Streptococcus bacteria, which cause strep throat, may also be responsible for OCD in children. To learn more, please see my previous article, "Are Probiotics the New Prozac?"
  • Inactivity. As previously mentioned, children are typically forced into very unhealthy and unnatural positions during the school day and are forced to remain seated. Typically young children are healthier than adults as their bodies haven't had years of abuse that many adults have. As a result, their body's still communicate clearly to them and tell them they need to get up and move to be healthy. When they listen to their body, they are not only reprimanded and told to sit down but drugged if they fail to comply. Ideally, children should be allowed access to stand-up desks and be allowed to move throughout the day.
  • Animal-sourced omega-3 deficiency. Research has shown that kids low in omega-3 fats are significantly more likely to be hyperactive, struggle with learning disorders, and display behavioral problems. Omega-3 deficiencies have also been linked to dyslexia, violence, and depression. In one study, fish oil was found to be more effective than Ritalin or Concerta for children with ADHD, and krill may be even more effective, as evidenced by other clinical studies. For example, a 2007 study11 examined the effects of krill oil on adults diagnosed with ADHD. By taking 500mg of krill for six months oil, this group experienced improvements in their ability to concentrate by more than 60 percent, their planning skills by 50 percent, and their social skills by nearly 49 percent.
  • Food additives and GMO ingredients. A number of food additives are thought to negatively affect mental health, and many have been banned in Europe. Potential culprits to avoid include Blue #1 and #2 food coloring; Green #3; Orange B; Red #3 and #40; Yellow #5 and #6; and sodium benzoate, a preservative. Recent research also shows that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide Roundup which is used in large quantities on genetically engineered crops, limits your body's ability to detoxify foreign chemical compounds. As a result, the damaging effects of those toxins are magnified, potentially resulting in a wide variety of diseases, including brain disorders that have both psychological and behavioral effects.
  • EMF. Limit you and your child's exposure to radiofrequency microwave radiation, cell and portable phones, and electro-pollution. This is especially true for your sleeping environment where rest and repair occur.
  • Other Toxic Exposures. Avoid all known toxins as much as possible, such as MSG and artificial sweeteners including aspartame, mercury from "silver" amalgam fillings, and fluoride in the water supply, just to name a few.

Mental Health Challenges Require a Multi-Pronged Approach

Those who value drugs for your child's mental or behavioral problems do so primarily because they change behavior quickly (and if you have health insurance, for little cost). But while your child's behavior may be changed, he's learning that he is "sick" and in need of medication to act "normal." As illustrated in the documentary, many children come to depend on the drugs and, should they ever discontinue them, will lack the knowledge of how to effectively manage emotions and behaviors that have been masked by drugs.

Ultimately, this is a process that involves lifestyle changes combined with tools for learning new coping skills, sometimes with the help of a skilled therapist. Besides addressing your child's nutrition, as described above, I also recommend implementing the following strategies to help your child achieve optimal mental health:

  • Clear your house of dangerous pesticides and other commercial chemicals.
  • Avoid commercial washing detergents and cleaning products used on clothes, and replace them with naturally derived cleaning products free of added perfumes, softeners, etc.
  • Spend more time in nature. Researchers have found that exposing ADHD children to nature is an affordable, healthy way of controlling symptoms.
  • Exercise. Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise and outdoor playtime, remembering that midday sunlight provides the UVB wavelengths necessary to produce vitamin D3. Low vitamin D levels are associated with ADHD in children and adolescents.12 Exercise has also been found to significantly reduce the symptoms of ADHD, anxiety,13 OCD14 (obsessive compulsive disorder), depression, and other mental health issues.
  • Investigate sensory therapy and emotional wellness tools. Instead of looking for a quick fix, encourage kids to talk about their emotions. You may also want to consider energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).

Give Your and Your Child the Gift of EFT

EFT (or "tapping") is a simple tool with powerful effects, and easy to learn by both adults and children. Recent research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, such as anger and shame. EFT has been shown to lower cortisol levels15 (one of your stress hormones), and can help your child "tap away" the stresses of his day.

EFT can also benefit you, as a parent, to cope with the stresses of having a challenged child. Studies show that parents of a child with a mental illness tend to have elevated stress hormone levels and are at increased risk of experiencing negative impacts to their own psychological health.16 Therefore, it's very important to address your own mental health needs if you are in this situation, and EFT is a great tool offering benefits for both you AND your child. Learning to regulate emotions helps children better manage their own moods and behaviors, improves self-esteem, and empowers them so that they feel and more "normal" and less stigmatized.

Ann Adams, Director of a rehabilitation center for emotionally disturbed children in Atlanta, Georgia, is one of the world's leading experts in using EFT with children. Through her work, she has found that even highly traumatized children from greatly disturbed homes usually respond amazingly well to EFT.17 You can learn the basics of tapping on your own and then teach the process to your kids, or you can recruit the help of a professional EFT practitioner. For more information, you can review the following resources that are specific to using EFT with children:

  • Ann Adams, tips for using EFT with children18
  • Article: "Teaching Your Kids to Tap" by Steve Wells19
  • Collection of tap-along videos by Brad Yates to help children learn EFT; Yates also has a children's tapping book, The Wizard's Wish20
  • Radio broadcast on EFT Radio entitled "Teaching Kids How to Overcome Anxiety," featuring Steve Wells and David Lake21
  • Short article about using EFT with children, "Helping Your Kids to Be Happy," Family Circle October 200322


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