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Use of behavioral medicines in kids on the rise

A new government survey reports that 7.5 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 17 are taking medications for emotional and behavioral problems.
A new government survey reports that 7.5 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 17 are taking medications for emotional and behavioral problems.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A survey conducted by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) shows that 7.5 percent of American school children are taking at least one medication for emotional or behavioral problems. According to an April 24 NCHS data brief, the report is an initial look at the problem and appears to support evidence that more kids in the U.S. are being medicated for these issues.

“This is definitely a first look,” LeJeana Howie, a statistical research scientist at the NCHS, told NBC News. “We just wanted to get a snapshot to see what the use was.”

Howie and her colleagues used data from the National Health Interview survey. The information was obtained from responses by parents or guardians and not from medical records. As a result, the researchers were unable to pinpoint the specific disorders the children were being treated for, but reported that the survey respondents indicated that 81 percent of the kids had been diagnosed with ADHD.

Howie and her team found that 7.5 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 17 were taking medication for problems such as ADHD, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and depression. Their findings also showed that more boys (9.7 percent) than girls (5.2 percent) were on the medications.

In addition, older girls were more likely to be given the medications than younger girls. The same, however, was not true for boys.

The researchers also found that the percentage of children who used prescribed medication for emotional or behavioral difficulties varied by health insurance status and poverty levels. The survey showed that 9.9 percent of children on Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program were taking the medications versus 6.7 percent who had private insurance. Only 2.7 percent of the children who had no insurance were being prescribed the medications.

The study authors did not speculate on the reasons for these differences. However, one expert who did not take part in the study suggested that many different factors could be coming into play.

“There may be parenting challenges such as more single-parent households, medications may be more available than access to behavioral treatments, there may be more logistical issues with nonpharmaceutical interventions like getting time off from work,” Andrew Adesman, MD, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park, told HealthDay.

Although 55 percent of the parents and guardians who responded to the survey reported being satisfied with the medication’s effectiveness, Adesman advocates alternative approaches for some. “There are nonpharmaceutical treatments for virtually all psychiatric diagnoses in children. For households where a child has significant emotional or behavioral difficulties, counseling, behavioral management and some form of psychotherapy can be helpful as well,” he said.