American preschool children on Medicaid, although in small numbers, are using psychotropic drugs, including antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and medications for attention-deficit disorder. This despite limited evidence they are safe or effective.

Lead author Lauren Garfield said:

“Because we don’t have indications in our data, it is not entirely clear why these children are receiving psychotropic drugs.”

Says coauthor Ramesh Raghavan, associate professor at the Brown School and associate professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine:

“It is possible that some of these children have brain injuries or insults, such as traumatic brain injuries, fetal alcohol syndrome or the like, for which treatment is being provided. But if these medications are being used solely for behavioral control, then it seems clear that we need to better assess these children, and see if they might be better served by the use of evidence-based behavioral interventions.”

Findings Disturbing

For the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers followed children in two groups, born in 1999 and 2000, up to 4 years of age. They used logistic regression to model odds of receiving medications for attention-deficit disorder/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression or anxiety, and psychotic illness or bipolar.

The findings show that between 2000 and 2003, 1.19 percent of children received a prescription for any ADHD, depression or anxiety, or psychotic illness or bipolar medication. In addition, 0.17 percent of infants younger than 1 year old and 0.34 percent of children between 1 and 2 years were being prescribed psychotropic drugs.

Across ages and cohorts, 0.61 percent of children received a prescription for ADHD, 0.59 percent for depression or anxiety, and 0.24 percent for psychotic illness or bipolar disorder.

“Although the absolute numbers and percentages of these drugs were small, these findings are worrying in so far as they indicate the use of psychotropic drugs among very young children,” the authors write. “The fact that any children this small are using psychotropic drugs is very worrisome.”

Overmedicating Children

Said JooYeun Chang, associate commissioner of the Children’s Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the US Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, DC:

“The existing evidence base in the area of trauma-informed psychosocial interventions warrants a large initial investment to expand access to effective interventions.”

Chang is helping to lead the effort on the federal level to reduce unnecessary psychotropic medication use among child welfare populations.

“The ACF budget request for $250 million over five years would fund infrastructure and capacity building, while the Medicaid investment of $500 million over five years would provide incentive payments to states that demonstrate measured improvement,” she says.

“This proposal presents a concerted effort to reduce over-prescription of psychotropic medications for these children by increasing the availability of evidence-based, psychosocial treatments that meet the complex needs of children who have experienced maltreatment.

Increased access to timely and effective screening, assessment and non-pharmaceutical treatment will reduce over-prescription of psychotropic medication as a first-line treatment strategy, improve their emotional and behavioral health, and increase the likelihood that children in foster care will exit to positive, permanent settings, with the skills and resources they need to be successful in life.”


Lauren D. Garfield, Derek S. Brown, Benjamin T. Allaire, Raven E. Ross, Ginger E. Nicol, and Ramesh Raghavan. Psychotropic Drug Use Among Preschool Children in the Medicaid Program From 36 States. American Journal of Public Health: March 2015, Vol. 105, No. 3, pp. 524-529. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2014.302258

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