The number of children taking powerful antipsychotic drugs has nearly tripled over the last 10 to 15 years, according to recent research. The increase comes not because of an epidemic of schizophrenia or other forms of serious mental illness in children, but because doctors are increasingly prescribing the drugs to treat behavior problems, a use not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And a disproportionate number of those prescriptions are written for poor and minority children, some as young as age 2.
Doctors are prescribing antipsychotics even though there’s minimal evidence that the drugs help kids for approved uses, much less the unapproved ones, such as behavioral problems. And to make matters worse, the little research there is suggests the drugs can cause troubling side effects, including weight gain, high cholesterol, and an increased risk of type-2 diabetes.
Doctors can legally—and commonly do—write prescriptions for any medication they see fit to treat a condition. (See here for more details on off-label prescribing)
But overuse of antipsychotic drugs has become worrisome enough that the American Psychiatric Association recently announced that doctors should not routinely prescribe the drugs as first-line treatment to children and adolescents for any reason other than psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or severe tic disorders. The association is so concerned that it chose to include this issue as part of Choosing Wisely, an initiative in which Consumer Reports has jointed the ABIM Foundation and national medical societies to identify tests and treatments to question.