ADHD is diagnosed in about one in 20 kids, according to new Canadian research, but how many are prescribed anti-psychotics that come with lifelong side effects?
Scientists behind a new study out of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) worry that many young Canadians with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are taking anti-psychotic drugs despite not having other mental health diagnoses.
One in 10 Canadian youth with ADHD are prescribed anti-psychotics that are typically meant to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other severe mental health concerns.
“We found that, not surprisingly, a majority of kids with ADHD are being treated with stimulants – it’s the first line of defence. But a substantial proportion are also treated with drugs used to treat anxiety and depression,” Dr. Paul Kurdyak, the study’s senior author, told Global News.
Kurdyak is a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health. He’s also a mental health services researcher at ICES.
Kurdyak calls the trend “worrisome.” In general, doctors try to limit a child’s exposure to anti-psychotics because of the side effects: weight gain is common, while blood test results indicate early warning signs for diabetes.
“In the long term, exposing a child to weight gain and diabetes could hurt the child relative to the benefits of taking an anti-psychotic for off-label use,” he warned.
Typically kids with ADHD are prescribed a stimulant, like Ritalin or Adderall.
Kurdyak looked at a random sample of 10,000 Ontario youths’ medical records. The group was between one and 24 years old. His team also considered their ADHD diagnoses, medications and health service use.
ADHD was more common in boys than girls — across the board, 5.4 per cent of kids were diagnosed with the condition. Twelve per cent of that group ended up with an anti-psychotic prescription even though “very few” had other psychiatric diagnoses that would be treated with anti-psychotics.
One in five kids even ended up with an anti-depressant prescription.
The study had a limitation, though: while the researchers had access to prescriptions that were doled out, they couldn’t tell how many of these prescriptions were filled and what the duration was for the drug therapy.
Still, Kurdyak suggests doctors, parents and patients should take a look at their prescriptions to make sure they’re addressing their needs.
“Physicians and mental health professionals should be advocating for non-pharmacological treatment for kids with conditions like ADHD. There are alternatives,” he said.
“For children and parents, they really need to understand the risks associated with anti-psychotics so they can make good, rational choices,” he said.
Kurdyak’s full findings were published Wednesday in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.