November 30, 2022
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ColumnsMind Matters

Early medication should not be first option

Flash forward 20 years. You have two kids. You are setting out their breakfast before they leave for school: two waffles, two bowls of fruit, two cups of orange juice — and two little yellow pills. Chances are your children are medicated. A recent study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that 7.5 percent of adolescents are taking daily medications for emotional or behavioral disorders, a number that is on the rise.

Now, flash back 10 years from today. It was almost unheard of for young children to be medicated. Why the recent increase? Are there actually more kids with emotional and behavioral problems, or are our health professionals being a little too liberal with their diagnoses?

Most of me wants to say the latter — our doctors, nurses and psychologists are just being too overzealous. The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists enough symptoms and criteria for a diagnosis that almost anyone could be considered “mentally ill.” It has become almost too easy for a doctor to tell parents what they want to hear: There is a reason their child acts a certain way, and it is not the parents’ fault.

But the more realistic side of me can’t blame only doctors for their quick diagnoses. There is an obvious connection with the growing detection of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and our fast-paced, technological world. Twenty years ago, it was rare for for physicians to identify children with ADHD, but it was also uncommon that those children were spending three hours every night playing video games, constantly texting friends or relentlessly checking Facebook.

Changes in our world have caused changes in our brains. Researchers at the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center reported in 2008 that endless task jumping on digital devices has increased the brain’s sense of stress. Because the brain believes it is in a constant state of crisis, the adrenal glands release more cortisol and adrenaline. This leaves us in a so-called “digital fog” where we are easily distracted and often ill-tempered. Sounds a lot like ADHD, right?

If the main cause is our lifestyle, then medication should not be the first line of defense. Yes, medication has been proven to be very beneficial and successful in many situations, and I am a big proponent of its use for mental health. However, that does not mean that 6-year-olds should be allowed, and even pushed, to take drugs for a problem that could be fixed by small changes to their daily routines and settings.

Do me a favor: When you have kids 20 years from now and you are setting out their breakfast, toss the yellow pills. Look for something other than a miraculous, cure-all drug to help them because I, for one, do not want to know a world where everyone has to “pop-a-pill” before getting on with his or her day.