Latest data compiled for the NHS show that tranquillisers designed to treat serious conditions including schizophrenia in adults were prescribed to young people 57,000 times in 2003. But the total had risen to more than 90,000 by 2006 – a 59 per cent rise in three years. The figures do not include drugs dispensed in hospitals. Experts believe the increase is partly down to early detection and treatment of serious mental health problems in children, but there is also concern they are being used inappropriately to treat psychological and learning difficulties. Shortage of staff and resources are further factors.
The drugs, which are designed to treat symptoms such as visual hallucinations, hearing voices and delusional thoughts, have serious side effects including weight gain, tiredness, sexual dysfunction and lactation. The safety and effectiveness of these drugs, which were designed for adults, have not been fully tested on children.
Official guidelines say they should be used only as part of a wider treatment package, but there are concerns GPs are relying on them too heavily because other treatments are unavailable. Some GPs, however, stand accused of ignoring or being ignorant of the guidelines.
England's mental health chief, Louis Appleby, said, "We are aware that anti-psychotic drugs are sometimes used as a last resort by clinicians dealing with highly disturbed behaviours in young people, and we are now considering how to prepare clinical guidance on this area of practice."
Psychiatrists and mental health charities have warned against using anti-psychotic drugs on developing minds. Paul Corry, director of public affairs for the mental health charity Rethink, said: "It is worrying that these very powerful drugs designed for adults are being given in such high numbers to children before their brains are fully developed.