Independent on Sunday (UK)
Sunday, 15 June 2008
Powerful anti-psychotic drugs designed for adults are being used to treat children, including those with learning difficulties. Brian Brady and Nina Lakhani report
The number of powerful psychiatric drugs prescribed to England's children has risen by more than half in four years, government figures have revealed.
GPs in England are handing out prescriptions for anti-psychotic drugs for children as young as seven at the rate of 250 a day, according to figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday.
Latest data compiled for the NHS show that tranquillisers designed to treat serious conditions including schizophrenia in adults were prescribed to young people 57,000 times in 2003. But the total had risen to more than 90,000 by 2006 – a 59 per cent rise in three years. The figures do not include drugs dispensed in hospitals. Experts believe the increase is partly down to early detection and treatment of serious mental health problems in children, but there is also concern they are being used inappropriately to treat psychological and learning difficulties. Shortage of staff and resources are further factors.
The drugs, which are designed to treat symptoms such as visual hallucinations, hearing voices and delusional thoughts, have serious side effects including weight gain, tiredness, sexual dysfunction and lactation. The safety and effectiveness of these drugs, which were designed for adults, have not been fully tested on children.
'No one ever talked about side effects with me, not once'
Lucy Bennett, 19, from Exeter, lives with her seven-month-old son Harvey. For a year she lived in psychiatric hospitals with medication the only option.
"By the time I was 15 I had every problem you can imagine. I was into drugs, alcohol, boys, and had stopped going to school. After years of growing up with my mum's mental illness and alcohol problems, I was on a road to self-destruction. I finally told a psychiatrist in A&E I was hearing voices after which I was admitted to hospital straight away.
"I felt terrible. I was all over the place, so when the doctors and nurses told me the medication would make me feel better, I took them. In some ways I did feel a bit better. I was a complete zombie and sleeping all the time which meant I didn't care about the voices any more, but they were still there.
"Within days I had started leaking milk from my breast. It was awful. I swapped medication and within three months I had put on three stone. I was so depressed at being a size 16 I started making myself sick. I ended up with bulimia as well.
"As soon as I decided I didn't want to take the drugs I was sectioned and forcibly injected. I ended pretending the voices had gone just so I could get out. Drugs were the only option. I had a psychology session for an hour a week and a few family therapy sessions but that was it. No one ever talked about side effects with me, not once. I ended up having to get information from my mum and other patients.
"Three years later I am medication free and learning new ways to cope with my voices. I have a great community psychiatric nurse, who lets me keep some medication for emergencies, but I'm in control now. There is no way I could look after my son if I was still on the medication. I know they can help some people but they didn't help me. I should have been given the choice."
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