Thursday, March 31, 2016

Prescribing the American Dream

Prescribing the American Dream

Wash your face.
Brush your teeth.
Get dressed.
Eat your breakfast.
Pack your bag.
Take your prescription drugs.
Go to school.

Sound familiar? Maybe not to those of us who have grown up outside of the United States, but to the millions of children living in the ‘Land of the Free’ that is exactly what their daily morning routines consist of. CCHR International, a mental health watchdog, reported almost 8,500,000 American children aged 0-17 were being prescribed with psychiatric drugs. 11% of American children aged between four and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, with more than 6% taking medication.

It is not only the quantity of children diagnosed that is alarming, but also the rate of increase of those diagnosed. Go back to 1997 and only 3% of American children had been diagnosed with ADHD, a figure in line with previous averages. Between 1997 and 2003, the number of those diagnosed increased by 3% each year. Between 2003 and 2007, cases increased by 5.5% each year. This increased to 16% between 2007 and 2013. Clearly those drugs that are being prescribed are working wonders…

Now don’t mistake my sarcasm for naivety. Before changing careers I was a youth worker for 5 amazing years, working with young people from all walks of life. My most sacred memories are taking disadvantaged youth from inner city Boston, many suffering from mental health issues, and working with them in the picturesque woods of Maine. I know from first-hand experience that sometimes medication can work wonders in enabling a young person to battle whatever demons they may face. In the right context I do not dispute that medication can play an invaluable role in helping someone overcome his or her issues. But in America it has become the easy option, the ‘go to’ for doctors when faced with a hyperactive or distracted child. Prescription drugs now seem to be the number 1 option in helping young American youth fight mental health issues.

The inspiration for this article was a new song ‘Kevin’ by the US rapper Macklemore (ft Leon Bridges), aimed at the dependency of American youth on medication, the lyrics sung including ‘‘Can’t cure my disease, without killing me’’. Therein lies the paradox, the necessity of using medication to help fight mental health issues, yet you must then fight to rid yourself of the medication.

It is a thought-provoking line. What the billion-dollar drug industry doesn’t mention on the stickers of those orange, white-capped bottles is the classification the US Drug Enforcement Administration gives the majority of their stimulants. Ritalin, Adderall, Vyvanse and Concerta among many others are classified as Schedule II stimulant drugs which have a ‘’high potential for abuse’’ and have the potential to lead ‘’to severe psychological or physical dependence’’. Now combine the devastating potential these medications pose with the knowledge that across America thousands of doctors are conducting short, uninformative tests and subsequently prescribing millions of children with these powerful and dangerous pills. It is nothing short of a drug-infused cocktail for disaster.

What happened to children and adolescents simply exhibiting a range of behaviours because they are mentally and emotionally developing? Do these pills really hold the answer to all of these children’s ‘’behavioural issues’’? Our teenage years are perhaps the most emotionally confusing years of our lives. In the past society accepted this for what it was, an emotionally volatile and unpredictable time. Forget for a moment the ridiculous numbers presented earlier. You should see the jaw-dropping changes in a teenager’s personality when they take medication like xanex. It’s truly heart breaking to watch their personality literally slip away, their mannerisms disappearing, to be replaced with a frighteningly placid, humourless shell of a human being.  In the aforementioned song, Macklemore perhaps again puts it best describing his friend as ‘‘walking around the city, looking like a mannequin’’. This friend died from a prescription drug overdose. Seems the DEA were right about those drugs having a high potential for abuse and dependence.

This is an issue the World Health Organisation reported as threatening the achievements of modern medicine, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention classified as an epidemic, and killing more people than car accidents every year. When are we going to stop taking the lazy, ‘easy’ route, and stand up to protect our children and young people? Pharmaceutical companies need to be held accountable, doctors need to be monitored and supported in providing alternative approaches, parents need to be educated and youth need to be better engaged and understood. America, it’s time to start rethinking your approach to diagnosing and dealing with mental health issues, and to stop simply trying to prescribe doses of the American Dream.

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