Study: Psychiatric Prescription Drugs for America's Preschoolers On the Decline

It looks like doctors are relying less on prescription drugs when it comes to treating mental problems in their youngest patients. According to a new study published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics, prescription drugs used to treat psychiatric issues in some of the youngest children (ages two through five) leveled off during the end of the last decade after reaching an all-time high in the mid-2000s. These drugs include stimulants, anti-psychotics, and antidepressants, as well as medicines used to treat the increasingly-prevalent attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

The decreased number of young children being placed on these prescription drugs occurred even as instances of young children being diagnosed with behavioral disorders climbed. So what are doctors doing instead? Researchers believe that in this decade, many physicians and their families are relying more on behavioral therapy than pill-popping to address the problems in pre-schoolers.

The study took a look at more than 43,000 doctors visits for kids between the ages of two and five during the years 1994 to 2009. Researchers found variations in the prescription of psychotropic drugs during that time, which jumped from one prescription per every 217 doctors visits in 1998 — to one prescription for every 54 doctors visits in 2004.

Between 2002 to 2005, about 1.5 percent of preschool age children were given a prescription for drugs to treat a mental issue, but by 2009, that number had decreased to one percent — the same rate seen in 1994 through 1997.

According to the study's senior author Dr. Tanya Froehlich, looking at the use of prescription drugs for mental disorders in young children is particularly important for understanding how these substances can impact development. "It's good to get a gauge on what we're doing with psychotropic medications in this age group, because we really don't know what these medications do to the developing brain," Froehlich said.

In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about a potential link between antidepressants and suicidal thoughts and actions in children.