Treatment of Children with Mental Disorders





er, only children age 6 and above were involved; therefore, age 6 was approved as the lower age limit for Ritalin®.

Q Can events such as a death in the family, illness in a parent, onset of poverty, or divorce cause symptoms?

A Yes. When a tragedy occurs or some extreme stress hits, every member of a family is affected, even the youngest ones. This should also be considered when evaluating mental, emotional, or behavioral symptoms in a child.

Stimulant Medications: There are four stimulant medications that are approved for use in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the most common behavioral disorder of childhood. These medications have all been extensively studied and are specifically labeled for pediatric use. Children with ADHD exhibit such symptoms as short attention span, excessive activity, and impulsivity that cause substantial impairment in functioning. Stimulant medication should be prescribed only after a careful evaluation to establish the diagnosis of ADHD and to rule out other disorders or conditions. Medication treatment should be administered and monitored in the context of the overall needs of the child and family, and consideration should be given to combining it with behavioral therapy. If the child is of school age, collaboration with teachers is essential.

Antidepressant and Antianxiety Medications: These medications follow the stimulant medications in prevalence among children and adolescents. They are used for depression, a disorder recognized only in the last twenty years as a problem for children, and for anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The medications most widely prescribed for these disorders are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (the SSRIs). In the human brain, there are many “neurotransmitters” that affect the way we think, feel, and act. Three of these neurotransmitters that antidepressants influence are serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. SSRIs affect mainly serotonin and have been found to be effective in treating depression and anxiety without as many side effects as some older antidepressants.

Antipsychotic Medications: These medications are used to treat children with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, Tourette's syndrome, and severe conduct disorders. Some of the older antipsychotic medications have specific indications and dose guidelines for children. Some of the newer “atypical” antipsychotics, which have fewer side effects, are also being used for children. Such use requires close monitoring for side effects.

Mood Stabilizing Medications: These medications are used to treat bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness). However, because there is very limited data on the safety and efficacy of most mood stabilizers in youth, treatment of children and adolescents is based mainly on experience with adults. The most typically used mood stabilizers are lithium and valproate (Depakote®), which are often very effective for controlling mania and preventing recurrences of manic and depressive episodes in adults. Research on the effectiveness of these and other medications in children and adolescents with bipolar disorder is ongoing. In addition, studies are investigating various forms of psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, to complement medication treatment for this illness in young people. Effective treatment depends on appropriate diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children and adolescents. There is some evidence that using antidepressant medication to treat depression in a person who has bipolar disorder may induce manic symptoms if it is taken without a mood stabilizer. In addition, using stimulant medications to treat co-occurring ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms in a child with bipolar disorder may worsen manic symptoms. While it can be hard to determine which young patients will become manic, there is a greater likelihood among children and adolescents who have a family history of bipolar disorder. If manic symptoms develop or markedly worsen during antidepressant or stimulant use, a physician should be consulted immediately, and diagnosis and treatment for bipolar disorder should be considered.