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Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 16:12 UK

Louis Theroux looks at America's prescription culture

Louis and Hugh by Kelley's fireplace
Millions of people are taking medication for problems

In the US, an increasing number of parents are turning to psychoactive medication to help them cope with the challenging behaviour of their children. So is this an understandable path to take, or a worrying shortcut, asks Louis Theroux.

On a kitchen countertop in their suburban Pittsburgh home the Kelley family keep a small collection of pill bottles.

They jokingly refer to is as "Hugh's personal pharmacy".

Louis Theroux: America's Medicated Kids is on BBC Two on Sunday, 18 April, at 2100 BST
Learn more at BBC Programmes

Hugh, aged 10, appears basically normal - a dark-haired kid who goes to a mainstream school and speaks and interacts well, albeit sometimes in a slightly aloof and off-hand way. Yet he has been diagnosed with a range of mental disorders and put on a battery of medications.

'It's very troubling'

He takes Adderall for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Tenex for impulsiveness. And for his bipolar disorder he is on a heavy dose of a powerful anti-psychotic called Seroquel - in an "off-label" prescription, meaning it hasn't been tested on children.

"It's very troubling," Hugh's mother Barbro told me when I asked about his reliance on the medication. "The problem with it is, if you continue not to medicate with something for bipolar disorder in a child, the highs and the lows, the cycles get worse and worse."

I was there for a documentary about the growing number of children who depend on psychoactive drugs to regulate their behaviour, basing myself at one of America's top hospitals for children's psychiatric issues, Pittsburgh's Western Psychiatric Institute.

Barbro and her husband Bob had been kind enough to put me up for part of my stay, as a way of getting to know a family with a medicated child and experiencing some of his behaviour.

The Kelley Family
The entire Kelley family - even the dog - were on psychoactive medication, except for the young daughter, Maeve

The family, judged by British standards, seemed surprisingly open to the concept of psychoactive medication. Hugh's mother was on an anti-depressant, Prozac. Bob took something called Neurontin for a bipolar condition he says he "may or may not have".

Even the dog was being fed Clomipramine, an anti-anxiety pill.

But Barbro said they had resisted medicating Hugh. She said they came to the decision to put Hugh on drugs reluctantly and with reservations, and only because the alternative - allowing his emotions and behaviour to continue untreated - was too awful to contemplate. Hugh's younger sister, Maeve, was on no medication at all.

In many ways, the Kelleys embody one of the biggest and most controversial debates embroiling America right now - the question of children and whether they are being overmedicated.

Children who a few decades ago would have been written off as naughty, troubled, or delinquent are now being diagnosed instead: "ODD" for oppositional defiant disorder, "CD" for conduct disorder, "SAD" for social anxiety disorder, "GAD" for general anxiety disorder, and so on.

Rampant overmedication

Critics of the phenomenon see it as rampant overmedication. Some call it "cosmetic psychopharmacology" or "steroids for the soul". They say kids are being medicated in lieu of proper parenting - or that the diagnoses are being sought by "pushy parents" looking to give their kids a competitive edge - since some of the drugs have "performance enhancing" qualities.

An assortment of pills
The Kelleys view their "personal pharmacy" of drugs as a "godsend"

They also worry about the side effects of the drugs - and the long-term consequences of taking psychotropic medication. Unlike the stimulants prescribed for ADHD (Ritalin and so on), which have been around for more than 50 years and which studies suggest are basically safe, little is known about anti-psychotics and their effects on children's still-growing brains.

But while it is easy to make fun of many of the diagnoses - and understandable that we should be wary of the medications - it is clear that for many of these families the medications have been a lifeline.

Hugh's parents said they cannot contemplate life without the medication. His behaviour was just too challenging.

He didn't get along with his peers. He was slow to pick up social skills - wasn't good at maintaining eye contact, for example. He seemed to think he knew better than anyone else on most issues. He was sarcastic and aloof in a way that belied his age. He often seemed angry.

He also suffered from mood swings, going from giddy and silly to gloomy and self-hating. He had bouts of not needing sleep and becoming grandiose - having an inflated sense of himself and his place in the world.

Highly intelligent

On one occasion, after being told off by his mother, aged eight or so, Hugh reacted by threatening to throw himself in front of a car on a road near their house. Shortly after this incident, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Louis meets a 6-year-old who hates losing

During my stay with the Kelleys, it was clear that Hugh wasn't your average 10-year-old. He could be moody and superior. During one argument with his sister he made a (not-too-serious) threat about hurting her. He then made the memorable pronouncement: "If the world is my nemesis, then I'm their nemesis."

When I attempted to interview him he was occasionally a little abrasive. He had a habit of wandering off without explanation during my questions.

But it was hard to know to know how much of his anger was "pathological" and symptomatic of a real condition - and how much was simply a moody 10-year-old acting up. And it was also true that he was highly intelligent, creative and capable of great charm. By the end of my stay, I'd grown to like him a lot.

In the end, there are no easy answers to the medication debate. I left the Kelleys more open to the idea of "drugging kids" than I'd been when I arrived. I could see that, for all the unknowns involved and the lack of long-term data, families like the Kelleys viewed the medication as a godsend.

But I also realised that doctors and families are still operating to a great extent in the dark.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Hugh sounds like he exhibits some classic (and very strong!) signs of autism. How much attention is paid to this in the US? I dread to think what the long-term effects could be on an autistic disorder of taking such a cocktail of pyschotropic medication in the early years.
Becky, Durham, UK

As a parent of a six-year-old son with Aspergers and ADHD, I watched Louis navigate his way through a world all too familiar. I have immense respect for the parents featured on the programme. Their commitment is equalled only by the personal price they pay in the pursuit of their child's welfare. Louis was sensitive both to the issues and the people he spoke to. He demonstrated a heartfelt desire to understand. Thank you Louis.
Stephen Proctor, Wakefield, UK

Prescription drug use in America is pathetic. In the first place, anyone who takes drugs for the least little thing just isn't thinking strait. They're only weakening their immune systems. And the doctors aren't helping any. They encourage people to run to them if they even get get so much as a sniffle, or minor pains.
Howard Chaney, L.A. California

Dealing with troublesome children is a difficult issue. As a teacher I am constantly making decisions about how to best to cope with children who are preventing other children from learning or feeling safe. But it seems to me that prescribing them drugs to change their personality is very dangerous. For a child that does not understand their behaviour to have that behaviour changed by something else they don't understand seems very dangerous to me. It seems to me we have made a positive step in removing violence from education and childhood but to replace it with mind altering drugs is not the answer. What are they trying to achieve in these children?
Dan Playford, Braintree UK

Yes, it's true. When you have one of these difficult children and you've tried everything, it is such a relief to find that the drugs do work. If my son hadn't had the option of medication to control his outbursts and hyperactivity, we would be divorced by now.
Anon, London

Perhaps this is mostly down to a lack of disciplining children properly. We, in the western world, now generally look down on smacking children. We should perhaps look again, at whether it can be an effective part of a range of ways to discipline children when they behave badly. I am not condoning physically injuring children and only suggest that it may be effective as a last resort to be used sparingly. If people think it is cruel and outrageous to do so, consider what is better for the child. Drugging them and telling them that they have mental problems (when it may just be bad behaviour), or giving them the occasional smack on the backside as part of a wide range of discipline methods as a last resort?
Ross Henderson, Glasgow, Scotland

When the cause of mental distress and suffering is biological, drugs have an important part to play. In other situations, drugs might deny the horrendous impact that modern life can have on our mental health. Treat the person or treat life?
Martin Hewitt, Glasgow, Scotland

The BBC should look at the diagnosis of bipolar/mental health problems in Britain in teenagers/young people. It's horrific. Unlike America British kids and their families have to fight for every inch of help the NHS don't want to give.
Lauren, London

Has no-one thought of trying psychotherapy, family based therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy - there are loads of non-medication treatments available. Children are often only reacting to toxic situations they find themselves placed in. They are acting out their parents' unconscious traumas and unfulfilled wishes. Children benefit by being listened to and nurtured not abused and put in a chemical straitjacket. children need love not drugs.
Polly, Birmingham

Interesting program, but unfortunately we did not see these kids before they started medication, so it was difficult for the viewer to determine if some parents simply took the easy way out. It was obvious that the change from the highly anxious or hyperactive, to mainly quiet, almost emotionless children through tablets as the end result did not suggest a complete success.

When I was in America on business one of the most disturbing things I heard was one of our clients going through the list of her son's medication. In pills we trust...
J, Tokyo

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