An anti-psychiatry movement has argued for years that children are over-medicated, that psychiatric drugs are dangerous, that diet and exercise can cure mental health problems, and even that mental illness isn’t real. Parents who live with children who have mental health issues know otherwise. Suicide threats, self-harm, and disruptive behavior can throw the lives of children and their family into ceaseless chaos.

So for many families, psychiatric medications offer stunning relief from a life that has begun to feel unmanageable. Yet the decision may still be a conflicted one. Parents may worry that opponents of psychiatry are right, or that the side effects of medication will be extensive. The truth is that as long as you are working with a skilled psychiatrist, psychiatric medications are safe and effective. Here are five things you need to know:

There Is Not an Over-medication Crisis

Opponents of psychiatric medication point to increases in the diagnosis of conditions like ADHD over the past 20 years. Most children with psychiatric conditions actually receive no treatment at all.

So what about scary numbers suggesting that toddlers are taking stimulants and that psychiatric drugs are used to “treat” normal childhood behaviors? In some cases, children with serious emotional problems receive treatment from pediatricians or family physicians, not from licensed psychiatrists. Though many family doctors offer quality treatment, they don’t have the training to diagnose complex mental health issues. They may also be unaware of other strategies—such as lifestyle management and psychotherapy—that are equally important to the successful treatment of childhood behavioral and mental health issues.

The problem, then, is that skepticism about psychiatry has caused some parents to avoid psychiatrists—even though psychiatrists are the people best equipped to treat their children's issues. A licensed psychiatrist will work with you to determine the lowest effective dose, the right combination of treatment strategies, and the best way to get your family back on track.

Lifestyle Remedies Work—But Often Aren’t Enough

Lifestyle remedies can help with a range of mental health conditions. For example, reducing caffeine and sugar can help with ADHD. Some research points to the power of exercise to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. That doesn’t mean that lifestyle remedies are interchangeable with medication.

Instead, the best treatment protocol is one that incorporates both lifestyle changes and medication. Anything less is giving your child substandard treatment. Mental illnesses are real illnesses, so treating them with diet alone is akin to trying to treat an ear infection with dietary changes. It just won’t work. And it might make things a lot worse.

Untreated Psychiatric Conditions Are Far More Dangerous Than Medication

Every medication has side effects, and rarely, those side effects are serious. Working with a skilled psychiatrist can help reduce the potential side effects of medication because your psychiatrist will assess your child’s overall health, explore risk factors, and carefully monitor the dosage. Even when there are some minimal risks or side effects associated with taking medication, the right psychiatric drug is still a good bet.

Psychiatric conditions ruin lives. They interfere with the ability to perform at school, to make friends, to form relationships, and to get a job. Mental illness is a factor in 90 percent of suicides, which means that untreated mental illness can be fatal.

Psychiatric conditions also increase the risk of physical health conditions. They can make it difficult to make good health decisions, and may directly affect physical health. One recent study found that people with untreated severe mental illnesses die, on average, 25 years younger than those in the general population. If you want your child to have a long and full life, treating her mental illness is one of the best choices you can make.

A Good Doctor Will Monitor for Side Effects

Psychiatrists are skilled at assessing which children are most vulnerable to side effects. A skilled physician will monitor your child for side effects, start with a low dosage, and offer suggestions for reducing side effects when they appear. So while parents are understandably concerned about side effects, those who choose a skilled doctor have much less to worry about. Be open and honest with your child’s doctor to get the best possible recommendations.

Medication Might Not Be Permanent

Mental illness still carries a stigma. That means that some parents have a difficult time accepting that their child might need to take medication—particularly if they’ll need to take medication forever. But there’s good news: Your child might not need to take medication forever.

For many kids, medication is a stop-gap measure. It helps them feel and behave better while a team works to address underlying problems and find effective lifestyle remedies. So while you should be open to the idea of your child taking medication if they need to, medication might not have to be the permanent solution you worry it will become.

References

Facts about mental illness and suicide. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_suicide.php

Insel, T. (2014, June 06). Post by former NIMH director Thomas Insel: Are children overmedicated? Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2014/are-children-overmedicated.shtml

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

Do Children Really Need Psychiatric Medication? is a reply by Marilyn Wedge Ph.D.

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