Pupils as young as three are at risk, warn experts as prescriptions soar
Prescriptions of Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have quadrupled in a decade, prompting fears it is being pushed on children at the expense of alternative treatments and without appreciation of long-term effects.
Figures released by the NHS business services authority to the Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt reveal the number of prescriptions of methylphenidate hydrochloride, the generic name for Ritalin, rose in England from 158,000 in 1999 to 661,463 in 2010.
Ritalin is a psychostimulant drug most commonly approved for treatment of ADHD in children. It is also used to treat conditions such as narcolepsy and in certain cases may also be prescribed for lethargy, depression and obesity.
The Association of Educational Psychologists said its members were reporting an increase in children with behavioural difficulties being prescribed the drug in conjunction with antidepressants, despite the fact there was “little to no evidence about the effect which these cocktails of drugs are having on the development of children’s brains”.
The association claims clinical studies show the “beneficial effects of psychostimulant medication are not sustained over the long term, necessitating stronger and stronger dosages to be prescribed over time” and that it is “becoming a common practice for children to be prescribed stronger dosages than recommended in the morning as a ‘top-up’ or ‘kickstart’ dose so that medication lasts the full school day”.
Munt, who until recently sat on the education select committee, said there were natural alternatives that could help combat ADHD. She highlighted a report commissioned by the RSPB that suggested activities in a natural environment appear to improve children’s symptoms by 30% compared with urban outdoor activities, and threefold compared to playing indoors. But Munt said many young people were prevented from enjoying the outdoors because of reasons such as lack of school playing fields and the distractions posed by video games, smartphones and social networking.
“It is extremely alarming that in the decade up to 2010, prescriptions for Ritalin quadrupled,” she said. “Statistics show that 90% of prescriptions for this powerful drug in 2004 were used to combat behavioural problems in school-age children. I am shocked that there has been such a huge explosion in use.”