The New York Times reported this week on the apparent increased use of psychotropic medications to help poor children do better in school. In an echo of what we found last year in the foster care system, it appears likely that doctors and parents, recognizing that schools are not going to be able to help their children learn, are turning to medications to improve attention and performance. The rationale is that if school environments can't be improved to accommodate the special needs of students, then drug therapy may help students fit into the learning environment that exists.
I understand the dilemma. Children in low-income families are more likely to be distracted and hostile at school. Drugs often used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can moderate these barriers to educational success, at least in the short term.
However, when researchers looked into the high use of psychotropic medications for foster youth, they found that many drugs were being prescribed without a thorough diagnosis. These were often powerful antipsychotics that had not been studied or approved for use in children. One of these drugs was risperidone, also mentioned in the New York Times story this week. Its potential side effects include weight gain, restlessness, sedation, depression, insomnia, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, muscle pain, tremors and photosensitivity.
Scary as those side effects are, so are the "side effects" of school failure. They include lower lifetime earnings, poor general health, reduced life expectancy, teen pregnancy, suicide, depression, and engaging in crime and drug use.
Unfortunately, parents' dilemmas about their children's education may only get worse. Estimates are that sequestration, if it happens early next year, will reduce the Department of Education budget by $4 billion. The side effects of that would be huge.
When government spending for education is heading down, what are people who care about children's success supposed to do? Let's ask all candidates for public office to stop thinking of children as an expense and start thinking of them as an investment. Perhaps the most important one we could make.