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Fears over rise in 'hyperactive' children being medicated

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The Sunday Times
October 15, 2006
Tara Womersley

A RECORD number of children are being prescribed drugs to treat hyperactivity, prompting fears that hundreds are being medicated unnecessarily.

Doctors in Scotland issued almost 50,000 prescriptions in 2005, an increase of 16% over the previous year, according to new government figures.

Since 2001, spending on drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has soared from £441,000 a year to £1.8m.

The medicines include methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin; atomoxetine, otherwise known as Strattera and dextroamphetamine, available under the brand name Dexedrine.

Critics claim some of the drugs can cause serious side effects including psychosis, anxiety, abdominal pain, suicidal thoughts and aggressive behaviour.

Parents of children taking Strattera have been warned to watch for signs of depression or suicidal behaviour.

The treatment of ADHD is currently the subject of a review by NHS Quality Improvement Scotland, the health standards watchdog.

Gywnedd Lloyd, head of educational studies at Edinburgh University, said she feared that children with behavioural problems were being wrongly diagnosed as suffering from ADHD.

Lloyd, co-editor of a book on the condition, added that the rise in prescriptions was extremely worrying because little is known about the possible long-term side effects of the drugs.

"This is completely mad," she said. "We will look back in 10 years' time and say, 'What were we doing giving brain-altering medication to small children?'

"There are a lot of complicated reasons as to why children behave in certain ways but what we seem to be doing is clustering them together. A small minority may have neurological conditions but we also need to look at other issues such as family problems."

Children with ADHD usually exhibit symptoms such as impulsiveness, hyperactivity and lack of concentration. The condition is usually identified in early childhood.

Methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine, which are both stimulants, have been shown to calm children with ADHD. Atomoxetine is a non-stimulant that works by affecting a neurotransmitter in the brain.

Despite the huge amount spent on medication, there is no official figure for the number of children treated for ADHD in Scotland.

Support groups for hyperactive children say they fear the drugs are seen as a "quick fix" and that greater emphasis should be placed on using other forms of treatment for behavioural problems.

However, Dr David Coghill, a senior lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry at Dundee University defended the rise in prescriptions for drugs to treat ADHD. "Medication is an important part of the treatment. It has a good safety record and side effects are rare," he said.

The Scottish executive said: "There is no evidence to suggest the prevalence of ADHD has increased but awareness of the condition has and this explains a rise in prescriptions."

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