Experts will attempt to answer these questions during a Vatican conference titled "The Child as a Person and as a Patient: Therapeutic Approaches Compared." Organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, the conference, which will run this weekend from June 14-15, will explore the harmful effects of over-prescribing psychotropic drugs to children and pregnant mothers.
Psychiatric medications have emerged as a first line of treatment for emotional and behavioral problems in children, while the use of psychosocial intervention has declined. However, Marcia Barbacki, an occupational therapist and one of the organizers of the conference, argues that global prescription rates of psychotropic drugs are not justified according to clinical trial evidence. "We want to share accurate data and provide solutions at multiple levels that value life, family and Church, and promote ethical research in health care," she told ZENIT. "It is time to no longer accept prescriptive practices that do not follow the evidence and increasingly put children at perilous risk for serious health consequences, dependence, and disability."
There are a host of side effects from many of these drugs, Barbacki said. For instance:
· "The stimulants now have warnings of sudden cardiac arrest and suicide. Stimulants stunt physical growth 1 cm and 2 kg per year.
· "The antipsychotics contribute to diabetes, obesity, tardive dyskinesia, neuroleptic malignant syndrome, and early death. There is no scientific evidence supporting effectiveness.
· "The antidepressants have warnings for suicidal behavior, manic behaviors, birth defects, and stunted growth and no scientific evidence of their effectiveness.
"Given the clinical trial data examination, outcomes and risks," she said, speakers at the conference "will be recommending that psychosocial options should be the first line of intervention."
The parents of children with behavioral or emotional problems, Barbacki continued, "need to know that there are multiple psychosocial options with the data demonstrating the superior short and long term outcomes of these non-pharmacological approaches that honor family, culture, faith, Church and spirituality."
"The data supports the therapeutic relationship and the compassion inherent in that relationship for both short and long term outcomes. This is consistent with the model of the Good Shepherd," she said.
"It is our ultimate hope that this conference will actually make a difference in the lives of children who find themselves in harm’s way, children who are often harmed even more by the treatments they receive… It is our hope that this issue can continue to be studied formally with follow-up meetings like this conference," she said.
Experts, like Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch, author of The Emperor’s New Drugs, say that pharmaceutical companies have contributed to the increase of psychotropic drugs being prescribed to children. "They have done so by withholding data from publication, by publishing only the most successful studies, and even then distorting the data. The data as presented in publications make these medications look better than the data submitted to the FDA. So prescribing physicians have not been provided with the information they would need to make informed decisions."
Speaking with ZENIT, Kirsch, who will be one of the keynote speakers at the conference, explained how he and his colleagues analyzed the data which drug companies sent to the FDA when they applied for approval of antidepressants. "My analyses of these data indicated that the drugs were little better than placebos. The difference between drug and placebo for most patients was so small as to be clinically meaningless. We also collaborated in an analysis comparing the outcomes of different treatments for depression. We found that psychotherapy, physical exercise, and acupuncture were as effective as antidepressants in combating depression."
Although antidepressants are not very effective in treating depression, he said, they nevertheless come with risks."Antidepressants are active chemicals with serious side effects and health risks. They increase suicidality in children, and their use has been associated with increased risk of becoming depressed again in the future."
Even though Dr. Kirsch does not recommend psychotropic drugs for children, he says there is still hope for children struggling with these disorders. "There are psychotherapists who are trained in working with children. Psychotherapy is an excellent alternative."