07/04/2005 04:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Pill for Every Ill

I’ll take my teachable moments anyplace I can find them… even if it means jumping into the middle of the celebrity spitting match between Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields.

And thanks to Tom and Brooke, and Tom and Oprah, and Tom and Matt (“You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do!”), this is certainly a teachable moment to be grabbed by those of us who have been raising our voices for years (I’ve written 14 columns on the subject [1]) about the epidemic of mood-altering drugs being prescribed to our kids.

This is a whole different debate than the Cruise-Shields dust up over antidepressants in general -- but it’s truly an urgent one, with over a million children on Prozac and its equivalents, and more than six million on Ritalin. And record numbers of kids are put on these powerful drugs even as the FDA, increasingly wary of their side effects, has issued a “black box” warning on antidepressants after studies found that children taking them were twice as likely to have suicidal tendencies. (And, as we saw with the Vioxx case, the FDA doesn’t make these kinds of moves easily -- or quickly.)

Although there are undoubtedly children who are properly diagnosed as clinically depressed and are legitimately prescribed antidepressants, as a country we’ve now gotten into the habit of treating childhood as a disease. Indeed, the official psychiatric diagnostic manual describes as symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder “squirms in seat,” “interrupts or intrudes on others,” and “is often on the go.” Sounds a lot like...uh, childhood -- a condition that -- when left untreated -- tends to cure itself over time.

And it doesn’t help to have the giant drug companies spending more than $3 billion a year on advertising designed to convince us that happiness is just a popped pill away. Locating our children’s problems exclusively in the chemistry of their brains (and cost-conscious HMOs certainly prefer prescriptions to therapy), only means that we never help them learn to navigate their emotions. And as Dr. Peter Breggin pointed out on huffpost today, the effects of many of these drugs we give to our children "are similar to the effects of amphetamine, methamphetamine, methylphenidate, and cocaine." Isn’t it a supreme irony that we have no problem turning our kids into legally drugged up zombies at an earlier and earlier age and then expect them to just say no to illegal drugs down the line?

If the unintended consequence of the Tom and Brooke celebrity duel is to throw some light on what we’re doing to our children, then all the sound bite fury will have been worth it.


  • Exit Joe Camel, enter Joe Prozac
    (July 17, 1997)

  • Children, soft money and McProzac
    (August 18, 1997)

  • The war on drugs: The real scandal is what's legal (January 2, 1998)

  • Kip Kinkel: Listening to Prozac? (June 15, 1998)

  • Guns, Drugs And Kids: What's Wrong With This Picture?
    (July 9, 1998)

  • U.S. Attention Deficit On Legal Drug Risks (December 7, 1998)

  • Barking Back At Prozac (January 18, 1999)

  • After Littleton: Antidepressants In The Bloodstream (May 6, 1999)

  • The Dangers Of The White House Mental Health Conference (June 10, 1999)

  • The Legal Drugging Of America: A Status Report (December 23, 1999)

  • 'P" Is For Preschoolers ... And For Prozac (March 20, 2000)

  • Elian and Elio (May 1, 2000)

  • Prozac: Unsafe At Any Price (October 23, 2000)

  • Drugging Our Children The Legal Way (October 31, 2002)