Nearly 200,000 children in Britain are being fed psychiatric drugs. Some call that progress, others a scandal. Anthony Browne reports

Sunday April 9, 2000
The Observer

Lee Millar is an exhaustingly energetic boy. He runs into people, is constantly on the go, sleeps little and always wants to play.

But when his mother, Donna, sought medical help the doctor didn't just shrug his shoulders and suggest that boys will be boys. At the age of five, Lee became part of what many doctors insist is a massive public health scandal, set to blight a generation, and already provoking a barrage of law suits.

He was diagnosed as having ADHD - attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder - and put on the psychoactive drug Ritalin. This is chemically similar to cocaine and speed and, like them, has been classified a class A drug. It is so dangerous pharmacists have to keep it locked up. In Sweden it was banned after an explosion of use among drug addicts. He was diagnosed as having ADHD - attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder - and put on the psychoactive drug Ritalin. This is chemically similar to cocaine and speed and, like them, has been classified a class A drug. It is so dangerous pharmacists have to keep it locked up. In Sweden it was banned after an explosion of use among drug addicts.

Ritalin had a powerful effect on Lee. 'He was like something out of The Exorcist, or Damian in The Omen. He stabbed his brother in the foot with scissors. I was frightened to go to sleep sometimes,' recalled his mother. 'He used to demand the pills and was definitely addicted. I find it incredible they're giving a class A drug to a five-year-old.' In desperation, Millar took Lee off Ritalin and he suffered severe withdrawal symptoms before settling down.

Although Ritalin has been around for almost half a century, use of it to control children has exploded in the past few years. Figures from the Department of Health show the number of prescriptions is roughly doubling every year. In 1993 there were 3,500. By 1998 it had soared to 126,000.

Almost all of that is for children. The drug is only licensed for children over six but is commonly given to infants as young as three. In Australia it has even been given to a 15-month-old.

Ritalin is only one of many powerful psychoactive drugs increasingly given to children - other common ones are Dexadrine and Clonadine. It is estimated that 190,000 children in the UK are being given psychiatric drugs.

The two opposing viewpoints on Ritalin argue their cases with fervour. Their support groups trade insults, casting aspersions on each others' motives and intelligence. Supporters claim Ritalin lets hyperactive children lead normal lives and develop friendships, and brings families back together. Critics have dubbed it 'kiddie crack' and say it is a quick fix that crushes children's spontaneity and damages their long-term health.

Gill Mead became a convert to Ritalin and founded the ADHD Family Support Group after it transformed her daughter, also called Lee. At three, Lee Mead started suffering from hyperactivity, with lack of concentration, insatiable demand, no ability to wait and panic attacks at school. She ended up being sectioned in a mental hospital.

At 16 Lee was diagnosed as having ADHD and the doctor put her on Ritalin. 'She regained the ability to learn, to stop, to sit around the dinner table. It was wonderful. Ritalin works, it keeps families in love with each other,' said Mead. Lee, now 24, has gained educational qualifications and has a boyfriend.

Mead now says she resents Lee's 'wasted childhood' and asks: 'How are these people in prisons, in detention centres, with no career, no job, going to feel when they learn what they had as children was treatable. They will be very angry, very aggrieved.'

Mead can barely hide her contempt for Janice Hill, who set up the Overload Network, which also aims to help families with hyperactive children. Hill had a problem daughter who was prescribed Ritalin, but quickly reached the opposite conclusion about the drug.

Before giving it to her daughter she tested it on herself and found she lost her appetite, got severe heart palpitations and had spasms. Such symptoms are also common among children, as well as weight loss, depression, stunted growth and - in one alleged case in the US - death through cardiac arrest.

Hill says hyperactive children should be helped through changing their diets, rather than drugs. 'We think it's totally unacceptable to give class A drugs to children,' said Hill. She is helping a group of 34 parents who have now got legal aid for their children to sue the psychiatrists and paediatricians who put them on Ritalin and other such drugs.

The psychiatric profession is as deeply split as the families. Eric Taylor, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry, was initially sceptical about Ritalin but eventually became converted. He said: 'If a child's social and family relationships and school learning are disrupted by the ADHD problem, then to control these symptoms long enough for normal development to proceed can be of very great benefit.'

A spokesperson for Novartis, which makes Ritalin, said: 'It is risk versus reward. If there are side effects they normally disappear with a change of dosage. There is no evidence of long-term effects.'

This is directly contradicted by Steve Baldwin, professor of psychology at the University of Teesside. He said: 'Of course they are addictive, of course they're toxic; they're a class A drug. We know it has long-term effects - it was classified as a class A drug in the Sixties.'

The soaring use of Ritalin among young children has started to alarm health officials. The Department of Health has instructed the National Institute of Clinical Excellence to scientifically establish 'best practice'. It is particularly concerned that while some doctors virtually never prescribe Ritalin, others are dishing it out daily.

In Stoke-on-Trent, concern over Ritalin has reached a crisis. In a case featured on BBC's Panorama tomorrow night, North Staffordshire NHS Trust suspended a doctor over the amount of Ritalin he was prescribing, and has started reviewing more than 150 cases. According to the programme, Dr David Foreman would prescribe Ritalin without peronally examining the child. The Trust has so far reviewed 100 cases and found that, in at least half, the Ritalin prescription was inappropriate. Foreman - who could end up being investigated by the General Medical Council - refused to give an interview to Panorama but said in a statement that he was following established international procedures.

A report earlier this year showed that three million American children are on psychiatric drugs, and just as the Ritalin culture is more established in the US, so is the reaction against it.

Dr Peter Breggin, of the International Centre for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology, the leading critic from within the psychiatric profession, believes Britain will follow in the footsteps of the US: 'You're going to face a national tragedy like we are facing here,' he warned.



Dr.Breggin M.D., Psychiatrist - Information on Prozac, Ritalin, Etc.

Dr. Fred E. Baughman, Neurologist - Dispelling the Myth of ADD/ADHD

CCHR - Citizens' Commission On Human Righs


This article reposted by Greg Churilov
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