Monday, April 9, 2012

Kids, Soldiers and Drugs

Boys in the trenches, World War I

I have a lot of friends whose kids are on psychotropic drugs. These are seemingly normal children, not those with special needs, and their problems range from attention deficit disorder and ADHD to depression and more serious issues of mental health. I'm in no position to judge this, cognizant of the fact that nearly all of those friends are wonderful, careful parents doing what they believe is best for their kids. But every time I read an article like the ones I've linked to below, I wonder. What, exactly, is going on that so many kids are being drugged at ever younger ages? Is this necessary? Is this a cultural shift? Is this a new "normal?" Is this going to backfire eventually? Is this a result of the pharmaceutical/industrial complex? Is it all about money? Are these kids at an advantage or have we created a monster?

I come at this predicament from a very biased position, of course -- while both my boys are free, blessedly, of any kind of drug, my daughter has endured an arsenal of them, and I can honestly say that nearly all the twenty or so that she's been on in seventeen years have been of no use to her whatsoever. In fact, they've probably done more harm than good. We are not an exception to this rule; 30% of people with epilepsy do not have control with multiple drug trials. Yes, 30%. I've grown extremely, if not irrationally, opposed to the seemingly careless way drugs are prescribed to children with refractory epilepsy (epilepsy is considered refractory when you've had a trial of at least two drugs and seizures are not controlled) -- I hear of young children on three and sometimes four combinations of AEDs all the time, still, in 2012 --  and I'm starting to get really creeped out by the numbers of "normal" kids being prescribed psychotropic ones as well.

I remember one neurologist years ago telling me that taking anti-epileptics was like peeling back the scalp and tissue underneath and pouring medicine over the entire brain -- a neuro-bath, I believe he described it back in the ancient 1990s. That meant the entire brain was affected by the drugs, and I do remember looking at the insert (that lovely piece of paper written in infinitesimal writing listing side effects ranging from irritability and bruising to constant laughter and death) and feeling like I was drowning in terror. I have never gotten used to giving her this shit. Never. I suppose I would have should her seizures ever have been controlled. I might have even been grateful. But even now, the drugs that Sophie takes are so new no one really knows what the hell they're doing to her, beyond the dizziness, headache, stomach cramping and tiny bit of seizure control. Years ago, when I first began exploring alternative treatments for Sophie, I asked her neurologist at the time whether it was all right to give her Chinese herbal teas that I'd gotten from a very trusted Chinese doctor. I don't see why not, the neurologist said in her clipped British accent, They couldn't be any worse for her than the stuff we've been cramming down her throat for the last decade. Poor little chip.

Evidently, more than 100,000 American soldiers are currently on psychotropic drugs. Yes, that's right. More than 100,000 of them, for issues like attention, depression, psychosis, etc. I suppose the justification is the constant stress and terror many of them have endured during more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're asked, all the time, to honor our troops, to admire them for their bravery, their sacrifices in ensuring our freedoms. It makes me sick that the powers that be are loading them up with drugs so that they can do their job. And some of these soldiers have had alarming behavioral side effects -- outbursts of extreme aggression, psychosis, suicide. Have we replaced the shell shock of old in an attempt to "help?"

The image of the brain, bathed in chemicals, comes to mind.

I hope some of the brightest and best minds are trying to figure this out -- outside of commerce. My biased gut that feels like I'm poisoning my daughter every time I give her doses of Vimpat and Onfi tells me that something is just not right about any of it.

Articles referenced: Growing Up Drugged by Caitlin Bell Barnett, Salon
                               A Fog of Drugs and War by Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times


  1. I think you may have figured it out when you said, "The new normal." At least for "normal" kids.
    Sophie, of course, is a different situation.
    But what if it does all boil down (for the "normal" kids) to not playing outside enough? To too much screen time and not enough jumping, running, laying on the ground and looking at the sky? What if?
    And the drugged soldiers- shit. Too much killing and horror.
    Yeah. Maybe.

  2. My son is on an antipsychotic.

    It was one of the hardest decisions of my parenting life, and strangers and my friends question putting kids on meds all the time (I have lost several friends over this).

    My son is autistic. He was 'that kid' in preschool who threw chairs. He had insane meltdowns. He spent his early years leaving bruises on my arms the size of softballs with his mouth and teeth. I had to protect my 4 year old daughter, who still got bit more than I liked.

    It worked almost immediately. Suddenly my son was able to control himself. He has not had one single outburst in 9 months. He is happy, cognitively advanced (still) and reminds me when I almost forget his meds - at 6 years old he knows how he feels when he misses even one dose.

    It's so hard making those decisions without feeling judged by society. I try so hard not to judge others who go through difficult situations.

    1. Katie: Thank you for your comment. I can only imagine how difficult that decision must have been. My musings, of course, don't address the huge and ever- growing number of kids with severe autism, a whole other issue. I can't imagine judging those who choose to give drugs to their kids who are suffering like yours --especially when the medications actually work.

  3. My mother, father, and sister all are or have been on anti-depressants. I've been able to manage my depression in other ways. But I do wonder what I'll tell my daughters if they are struck with depression as young adults. To drug or not to drug? I hate drugs but sometimes a person can't get better until they're on them, I think.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Vesuvius! I know there are many new studies "out there" that show antidepressants are not as effective as some might think. Scary stuff.

  4. It makes me sad to think of all of those children not having the simplicity that we enjoyed when we were young. Playing outdoors, running a little bit wild, blowing off steam, creating parallel universes in make-believe, without too much homework or too many "practices" (sports or otherwise) to attend. We tried consciously to give that kind of life to our children, but I see that children's lives have gotten much more pressurized, even in the past 5 years. As painful as it is, I'm glad that you brought it up.

    I won't go into the pain of watching your child be given actual poison in order to try to cure her, knowing the potential side-effects of the treatment. And having it not work. We desperately need scientists/healers who are willing to work with the body, not against it!

  5. I am sure you must have heard about the ketogenic diet that can control epilepsy. My friends' daughter is epileptic and has CP. She is now 15. She started the diet 6 years ago and is completely drug free. It has completely changed her life and we are all so happy that we have been given this chance to get to know her, rather than watch an endless cycle of seizures, recovery and building up for the next seizure. I know it doesn't work for every person but if it did for Sophie ... how amazing that would be.

    1. Annicles: Thanks for your comment. I am happy for your friend's child. Sophie was in the Keri diet twice and both times were a nightmare. It's definitely NOT a natural, less harmful treatment than drugs, although for some it's more effective.

    2. Sorry for the typos! That should read "on Keto. "

  6. Balance. Isn't that we all are looking for in our lives? And with these medications, it seems to be much the same. I tend to be one that tries to utilize Eastern and Western philosophies, when it comes to medicine. Open to both having a vital and necessary place. As well as choosing what food we put in our bodies.

    But I have to say, I have no idea where 3 of my children would be today, and how they would be functioning in their daily lives, without the drugs that we have, in some moments, painfully decided to put them on. I wish, to the bottom of my soul, that is had been as easy as sending them out to play in the sunshine and get some fresh air.

    As I watch Joe cycle through different periods of time in his life, my heart hurts, knowing, that quite frankly, if he was not on his medication, and does not remain on his medication, his life would and will be, quite different. And not for the better.

    As I have watched Caitlin lose 10 pounds off her tiny frame at different times in her life, as I have watched her throw up uncontrollably,day after day, riddled by anxiety that controlled her every move, knowing that nothing I said or did, mattered, I have felt helpless as her mother. She is the mother and wife and person she is today, because of the medication. Without it, trust me, we have seen it, she would not be able to function through her days.

    And then there is Zoey. I literally shudder to think what has gone into her precious 23 pound frame, in only 5 short years. What damage has been done? We will never know. Without the chemo and the plethora of other hundreds and hundreds of medications, even the anti epileptic drugs, where would she be?

    Ah, to simply walk them all out into the sunshine and have them soak up some vitamin D and have their troubles melt away, how beautiful that would be.

    All about the balance,

    1. Heather: I agree with you, completely. However,. I don't think these articles are about what we might call "balanced " approaches to giving kids medication. They are about the unprecedented use of psychotropic drugs - both in the general population and in soldiers, and it's pretty scary stuff. More than 1/4 of college age kids on stimulants, nearly the same number of secondary school kids fir "attention" issues. Prestigious private schools with more than 1/3 of their students taking these drugs to improve their ability to focus and perform. I think those are the issues that are being addressed, and I agree with Karen that some of it MIGHT have to do with our culture.

  7. Thank you for replying to me Elizabeth. I know I am in a position of deep ignorance when it comes to children with any type of medical need. I am sorry the keto diet didn't work out well for Sophie, I know it is pretty hit and miss as to who reacts well and who doesn't. I should have known you would have explored every possibility. I'll go back to lurking, just wishing you peace before I depart!!

  8. Annicles: Oh, please don't depart for long. I so value my readers and their commenters -- perhaps your notation of the keto diet working so well for your friend's child will help another reader who knows nothing of it. In any case, I appreciate your voice and hope you'll comment again!

  9. Unfortunately, there are a host of psychoactive agents being peddled by big pharma....often with long term studies and a clear examination of side effects. I would supposed the most troubling aspect of psychoactives are the fact that they work sometimes, but research often does not know why they work. With my son, we have had the best results with homeopathic interventions ... that which broke his neurological storming was simply homepathic opium. I have no answers but a host of questions....

  10. There is so much out there to give now, and many of us are now taking our kids to psychiatrists and psychologists, something my parents would never have done until and unless one of had a true psychotic break. The drugs work, from what I have seen, which is why some of us use them. My son has a friend who would not be able to function in school, society without his meds. I've seen him off them. His mother hates the meds and has tried many times to wean him off. Now her big fear is that he'll not take them, as he is away from home, at college.

    Drugs saved my middle child. Enough drugs to kill, but kill the cancer it had to do. I can't thank modern medicine enough. 60 years ago, my son would not be alive. Today, the vast majority of kids with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia live! But, oh, the drug they have to take to beat the beast.

    I know what drugs you mean. I want some more of them. I have a DH who has so much trouble sleeping and when he obsesses over issues, becomes nearly crazy. I have trouble getting them for him, yet it seems so many get them so easily.

  11. When I look at the picture of soldiers I think of a people overwhelmed. I think of people who were not created to fight. Sometimes I think that is what is happening to the rest of us (myself included.) I am tired and overwheled. I can't keep up with the demands of today's world. Everything is too big and going far to fast.
    I will use this example. When I was growing up we had 3 TV channels and we needed to go outside to make the channel clear. Now people have hundreds of TV channels. It is too much!
    I think the entire world has just become far to much. I don't think we were ever meant to take on so much. I mean how many passwords does each person have to remember? Kids are no different. They are expected to be reading in kindergarten. God forbid if they aren't. Kids can't be kids anymore. I think the world overwhelms most children and is causing depression, anxiety and anger. I don't think these children would have had the same issues if they could be taken out of the overwhelming world they are in out in a simpler slower place.
    And most certainly the pharmaceutical companies are all over this. I read an article that if they found a cure for cancer it would put the entire planet into a financial depression. Doctors, nurses, care staff, cleaners, pharmacists would be out of work. People would live way, way longer than they do and we could not support people living to 120 years or more. Anyway, I am digressing. I believe pharmaceutical companies push as much medication as they can
    All I can say is the world has gone nuts. I know without a doubt I am addicted to Ativan even though I only take it once a day. I take it to get through the day/night. It is a tough world for children too.
    I don't know. I have no answers.

  12. I've been on antidepressants off and on (currently off for the last 18 months) for years - some of them incredibly powerful - and I have to say that I feel much better off of them. I will credit them with saving my life at one point or another (keeping me from throwing myself off of the nearest bridge), but it wasn't until I found a naturopath who patiently worked with me both off and on the drugs to discover a regimen of healthy eating and meditation and exercise that would keep the darkness at bay. I'm certain that, while it took a lot longer, it is significantly cheaper to have me on this treatment plan than to buy expensive, toxic pharmaceuticals for the next 40 years or so. I wish we could see clearly to doing the same for our troops and our children.

  13. I agree with you, Elizabeth. I don't have kids, and I am blessedly free of medication myself, so undoubtedly those factors influence the way I think about this issue. But suspect we "treat" normal psychological and emotional states (sadness, elation, distraction, just plain YOUTH) with a lot of useless and potentially hazardous pills. I wouldn't take any of them.

    As for soldiers, it seems to me a better answer than medication would be ENDING WARS.

  14. PS -- obviously I realize Sophie's situation, and that of many other children with severe conditions, is not a matter of treating "youth." I'm thinking more of ADHD and that sort of thing. The flip side is that you DO need medicine sometimes. I think we need to be far more judicious as a society about its use, though.

  15. Very informative post. I had no idea regarding the soldiers. Being a military brat of a lifer you know there was a time when this would have meant automatic discharge now it seems the norm. You know the boy was severely drug exposed in utero and he has been on a stimulant since 8. With the recent hip fracture he was on Morphine, Hydrocodone, Valium and Motrin so I withheld the stimulant. He hasn't had it since. And he's not crazy psychotic. Annoying yes. But I can tolerate annoying. Annoying for an active boy is normal. Fingers crossed. I would so love for him to be able to function in his school setting and learn without chemicals.

  16. My boy takes a strong anti psychotic and it does a very good job of suppressing psychosis. He currently would like to be done with all medication - I don't disagree that most of what he's been on hasn't been helpful, but right now I'll take a slice of stability for him as his brain storms and storms.

    Mental illness in a developing brain is a moving target and so hard to treat....

    Sometimes I think his illness is a natural response to our sick effing planet.

    Awesome post.



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