Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Antipsychotic Medication Used to Dope Up Unhappy Children.

There were two interesting editorials in the September 2015 issue of JAMA Psychiatry, a journal that used to be called the Archives of General Psychiatry and which is published by the American Medical Association. On the surface, the articles seem to address completely unrelated subjects, but on closer inspection, they both involve a common theme.

The first one is entitled "Antipsychotic Use in Youth Without Psychosis: a Double Edged Sword." I have of course railed in many of my blog posts about the use of antipsychotic medication for patients who do not have psychosis, because these agents can have serious drawbacks, and because better alternatives exist. In many cases, the better alternative is psychotherapy that can help the anxiety and mood symptoms that used to considered to be part and parcel of, and caused by, neurosis - behavioral disorders based both on internal ambivalence about one's life choices as well as interpersonal conflicts.

I have been particularly critical of the use of antipsychotic drugs in children who are almost never actually psychotic, and who are being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when they are in fact just misbehaving because of stress and family discord. As the JAMA Psychiatry editorial points out, the long term effects on the brains of developing children of antipsychotic drugs are unknown, although changes in the density of neurons have been observed.

The editorial mentions recent statistics that really do prove that the medications are being used in children primarily to shut them up. I quote: "All signs suggest that [antipsychotic medication use] among children is chiefly in those with aggression and behavioral dyscontrol, ADHD, and disruptive behavior disorders, but not for those with psychosis, bipolar mania, Tourette's Syndrome, or autism spectrum disorders." They are also being combined more and more with stimulants. 

Repeat after me, "Uppers and downers, and bears, oh my!"

Fewer than 25% of the young people in this study had any recorded psychotherapy of any kind. 

These drugs are effective for aggressive behavior - but not because they are specific for that problem, but because they are sedating and at times mind-numbing - as a side effect. Heroin would probably work just as well! After longer term use, however, the sedation side effect diminishes, so the drugs don't seem to work as well any more, which is when second and even third drugs are added.

The second editorial is titled, "Why Are Children Who Exhibit Psychopathology at High Risk for Psychopathology and Dysfunction in Adulthood?" Somebody actually did a study about this question, which should be high on my all time list of studies appropriate for the journals Duh! and No Shit, Sherlock. The study wasted time and money actually investigating the question of whether or not the proposition in question was even true. Turns out it was. Surprise!

Gee, childhood conduct disorder predicted antisocial tendencies. Who'd'a thunk? However, behavior problems in childhood predicted a wide range of different mental disorders, and was therefore a non-specific risk factor for a whole host of problems. 

Even less surprising, "a subthreshold or threshold mental disorder at some time from late childhood through adolescence predicts lower levels of adaptive functioning." So poorly functioning children become poorly functioning adults. I wonder why?

Actually, the question of why childhood behavior problems are non specific in being risk factors for various other psychiatric disorders is addressed in the editorial, and this part is where this editorial touches on the issues addressed by the other editorial discussed above. Three possible "causes" of why disturbed children become dysfunctional adults are listed. 

While there is some truth to the possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive by any means, it is simply amazing to me how the editorial author studiously avoids any clear-cut mention of ongoing family dysfunction as the culprit.

Family dysfunction is often chronic and ongoing and is rather widespread in our culture. To name just a few: parental drug abuse, divorces with multiple lovers coming and going and/or with children being passed around to different relatives, child abuse (physical, sexual, psychological), domestic violence, parenting issues (parents leaving children unattended or neglected for long periods, putting childcare entirely on the backs of older siblings, catering to children's every whim, invalidation, screaming and yelling, undermining the disciplinary efforts of one another), parents having multiple affairs, bad mouthing the other parent in front of the children and enlisting them as allies (triangulation), and general chaos at home. Is the author of the editorial really saying that none of these problems might explain the connection between childhood and adult psychiatric problems? Is that their argument?

If you don't believe that these patterns are common, I have two words for you: country music.

The closest the author of the editorial comes to this issue is reason #3. But notice the wording: ongoing instability is mentioned, but mostly things like poverty and living in bad neighborhoods. The nearest thing to family dysfunction that is mentioned is "lack of stable social support." Vague enough for you?

In reason #1, the authors seem to be blaming the child for the problems of the adults, rather than the other way around! They say, "exhibiting the behaviors that define conduct disorder in childhood may alienate peers and family."

Which do you think is more powerful and important: adults' behavior negatively impacting children, or children's behavior negatively impacting adults? This reminds me of a speaker touting Adderall at a grand rounds in our department who said, "If you had kids with ADHD, you might drink too much too!" In other words, he was saying that rambunctious children are a cause of alcoholism.

In reason #2, the authors do refer to environmental factors, but over-emphasize early ones. I guess the authors think either than family dysfunction ceases miraculously by virtue of a child turning 18, or that adults are not affected much any more at all by what their family members are doing to and with them. Sorry, but those assumptions are just plain nuts.

Before I quote what they listed as the three reasons, what is the connection I am implying to the issue of antipsychotic use in kids? It is this: instead of recommending family therapy, the doctors are just drugging the kids who act out in response to these problems.

Anyway, here are the reasons as they described:

1. Child psychopathology and adult psychopathology could have different causes, but experiencing mental health problems in childhood may directly or indirectly increase the risk for adult psychopathology. For example, exhibiting the behaviors that define conduct disorder in childhood may alienate peers and family, lead to curtailed education and incarceration, and increase the risk of brain and spinal cord injuries. In turn, these adverse consequences of childhood conduct disorder may place the individual at increased risk for later psychopathology and compromised adaptive functioning during adulthood.

2. It is possible that some or all of the causes of psychopathology across the life span operate early in life. That is, childhood psychopathology could predict psychopathology and compromised functioning in adulthood because they are both influenced by at least some of the same genetic and early environmental factors. Although there may also be later age specific causal influences, such enduring effects of early causal influences would foster the observed predictive association. At the level of mechanism, child and adult psychopathology would at least partly share atypical functioning in the same neurobiological processes in this case.

3. The predictive association between child psychopathology and adult psychopathology could reflect chronic or intermittent exposures to conditions that give rise to psychopathology when encountered across a life span. For example, psychopathology at all ages may be fostered by chronic economic instability, pollution, living in disorganized and violent neighborhoods, and lack of stable social support. To the extent that these causal environmental factors are stable across a person’s life, childhood psychopathology would reliably predict adult psychopathology even in the absence of a shared causal or mechanistic link between them. 


  1. Thank you for this concise description of the current unhelpful trends in psychiatry. You are truly a voice in the wilderness.

  2. Thank you for making this available. Whenever I read the pontifications about psychopathology and the need for medication I think about the babble about witchcraft in the Middle Ages.