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Kids Are Suffering Legal Drug Abuse
by Peter R. Breggin
Sep 26, 1999
Most adults used to think that psychoactive drugs - substances that affect thinking and feeling - were bad for children and teen-agers. Hence the slogan, ''Just say no to drugs.'' At the same time, prescribing psychiatric drugs to children was a rare and extreme measure.

But now many adult authorities are turning to drugs in order to bridge the gap between generations in a far more insidious and coercive way - by the forced drugging of children. Probably at least 5 million or 6 million children each year - 10 percent or more of the school-age population - will take one or more of a variety of psychiatric drugs, including stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall and antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft. The rates are even higher among children in special classes, foster care, mental hospitals, and juvenile detention centers.

In my psychiatric practice, I see children 6 to 10 years old who have been put on four or five psychiatric medications at once. Why? Because their parents and their teachers haven't found a way to reach them with the necessary combination of rational discipline, unconditional love, and engaging relationship. And because society has failed to address the whole range of problems that afflict our children - from the breakdown of the family and the educational system to child abuse, sexism, racism, poverty, and inadequate health care.

Who gets drugged among our children? Literally any kids who do not put on a happy face and conform. This includes children who are sad and anxious, or angry and aggressive, as well as disobedient kids - children who won't do their chores, finish their homework, or get good grades. Even children who are shy and dreamy are now the target of psychiatric drugs.

This medicalization of shyness ignores its causes, including both traumatic abuse and natural personality differences. The child is compelled to display a drug-induced superficial social veneer. In a society that's supposed to accept and even value differences, drugging shy children reflects an extreme of enforced conformity.

The child's ''problem'' in many cases is caused by unrealistic adult expectations or neglect, conflict, and trauma. But instead of recognizing our role in creating and in healing our children's suffering, we give them psychiatric labels such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Clinical Depression that blame the children themselves and their presumably faulty brains.

As a result, the International Narcotics Control Board of the World Health Organization has warned about the massive overprescription of stimulants to children in the United States, a country that now uses 90 percent of the world's Ritalin.

We are the first adults to handle the generation gap through the wholesale drugging of our children. We may be guaranteeing that future generations will be relatively devoid of people who think critically, raise painful questions, generate productive conflicts, or lead us to new spiritual and political insights.

Growing up on psychiatric drugs, millions of children are developing little sense of personal responsibility. Instead of discovering their own capacity to improve their lives and to transform the world for the better, they are being taught they are brain-defective - and require lifetime treatment with psychiatric drugs.

From Ritalin and Dexedrine to Prozac and Paxil, the drug epidemic among our children comes increasingly from our prescription counters. (Indeed, the use of most illicit drugs has for some time shown a steady decline among youth.) It's time to stop subduing our children at the cost of their brains and their independent mental life. Instead, we need to do what every generation has been called upon to do - to bridge the gap through active, disciplined, and loving engagement with the children in our care.

There's no simple prescription for this. It requires a thorough reevaluation of personal and political priorities and a determination to create a society that meets the needs of its children for adult relationships, solid family life, inspiring education, and equal opportunity for men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Amid all the hype over ''listening to Prozac,'' we need to listen much harder to our children's cries for help. Instead of chemically restraining and gagging them, we need to do the hard work of reordering our private lives and our public policies to address the needs of our nation's children.