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There seems to be an epidemic of children, including some very young children, being diagnosed with a psychiatric illness and treated with psychoactive drugs.

I know there are some children who are truly and seriously mentally ill. They may be dangerous to themselves and others, they can disrupt and devastate family life quicker than an earthquake. Treatment is needed. Desperate parents struggle to find help in a nation where services for the mentally ill are not optimal and many insurance plans do not provide adequate treatment.

But this is an area where the best advice I can give is: PARENTS, BEWARE!


1) Some of the children diagnosed with a psychiatric illness are exhibiting exaggerations of normal developmental stages. They are learning their limits not suffering from Oppositional-Defiance Disorder. The parents need help but the kind of help they need is how to parent such a child. The child does not need a psychiatric diagnosis or medications.

2) Some children are exhibiting troubling behaviors because they are reacting to undue stress in their lives. These stressors range from the loss of the constituted family due to death or divorce, horrendous experiences with bullying, the effects of living in poverty or being homeless. The entire family needs help in order to deal with and help such a child who does not need a psychiatric diagnosis or drug.

3) Many of the drugs being given to kids have not been studied in children so we don’t know the long term effects on the growing brain. And some side effects are very problematic if not downright dangerous..

4) Our current mental health system often functions in the following way. A trained mental health professional makes a diagnosis in one or two visits and orders medication. Follow-up, if any, is carried out by a less skilled mental health worker. The child may be continued on medication without getting any other treatment.

5) Many families, especially today with economic woes piled upon already overworked and stressed parents, are in chaos. Parenting is fragmented, parents cannot spend enough time with their children, extended family members who might take up the slack live far away. Kids can get lost in this maelstrom and they react by acting out or getting very sad.

I am painting a gloomy picture to make a few points for parents.

1) Always get a second opinion. I used to worry about unnecessary surgery like tonsillectomies and ear tubes. Today I worry about the overuse of the psychiatric diagnosis. And once the diagnosis is made the overuse and often unnecessary use of psychoactive drugs.

2) Worried about your child’s behavior? Talk to the teacher and the child’s pediatrician first. Often parents can gain insights into what is behind the child’s behavior and find ways to deal with it.

3) All parents, whether or not they have a disturbed child, should strive to reduce chaos, stress, and noise in the home. It helps all of us, mentally ill or not, calm down.