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A 2015 study by the National Institutes of Mental Health dove into the previously murky waters of children’s antipsychotic use, and the findings are interesting: Boys are being prescribed antipsychotics much more often than girls are.
In the children up to 12 years old, boys are almost three times more likely than girls to be taking antipsychotics.
The study doesn’t go into what’s driving those numbers, but I’d like to share one observation. In my years treating people with mental illness, I’ve found that symptoms are much more physical for males than for females.
Where females tend to internalize their stress, resulting in symptoms like lack of motivation, loneliness, or depression, males tend to externalize it. The males are more aggressive, irritable, and reactionary — symptoms that some practitioners treat with antipsychotics.
Researchers also found that general practitioners are frequently the ones doing the prescribing. For children ages 1-6, 43 percent of antipsychotic prescriptions came from non-psychiatrists. Psychiatric participation increased in older age groups.
At any age it’s important to approach antipsychotics carefully, but we should use particular caution when we’re dealing with young children. Antipsychotics impact both physical and neurological function, and effects can linger after use stops. It’s important to involve a specialist who understands these implications when contemplating such a route.
I tend to prescribe antipsychotics as a last resort. I find getting both children and parents in therapy and stressing the basics (sleep routines, daily schedules, healthy eating, and exercise) can help with all kinds of mental illness in children. Specialty therapies like art and play or animal therapy have also proven effective for children.
In general, there are many strategies and medications practitioners can use before leaping to antipsychotics.
For more information on the NIMH study, go here.