The Palm Beach Post launched an investigation into the use of antipsychotic drugs for locked up juveniles in the state of Florida. What they found was remarkable and disturbing, that the state was buying more of these potent medications than they were over the counter meds and that they were being prescribed by doctors who had received gifts and speakers fees from the drug companies who manufactured them.
In 2007 the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice bought double the amount of Seroquel than they did ibuprofen. (Seroquel is approved for treating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in children). Kinda makes you wonder if bipolar episodes are more common than headaches within the juvenile facilities or if the kids get the “good stuff” for everything from a sports injury to a depressive meltdown.
In a period of 24 months, the Palm Beach Post says, “the department bought 326,081 tablets of Seroquel, Abilify, Risperdol, and other antipsychotic drugs” for the kids in state-run juvenile jails and homes. This, they point out, is enough to pass out 446 pills a day, seven days a week, for two years—in facilities that hold less than 2,300 juveniles.
The DJJ didn’t hand over all of their drug information, not surprisingly, but the Post’s report was enough to “shock” administrators into ordering a review of the system. Part of the reason the department didn’t hand over all of the information is there’s no reliable way of tracking it. With private companies running the majority of the state’s juvenile residential programs, policies and procedures from home to home vary. Some “don’t have drug reporting requirements written into their state contracts.” Guess the Florida DJJ didn’t think this was an important matter when they were considering the cost benefits of privatized facilities.
So, what’s the problem? Well these drugs are controversial, even for those kids that have the necessary diagnosis. With side effects like suicidal thoughts, body tics, diabetes, and heart problems, these aren’t your typical children’s chewable. And doctors aren’t only prescribing them to the kids who have received a bipolar or schizophrenic diagnosis. In what’s called prescribing “off label”, doctors use these drugs to treat everything from ADHD to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, things the drugs haven’t been approved for. If they are willing to dole them out regardless of diagnosis, who’s to say they wouldn’t prescribe them to a “troubled” youth who staff has a particularly difficult time with? These drugs have sedative effects, settling the kids down and potentially calming things down in what would otherwise be a somewhat chaotic place.
I covered a similar story last fall for Change.org, where the organization Youth Today released a study on incarcerated juveniles and the use of anti-psychotic medications. They found that 70% of prescribed anti-psychotics were given to children without a bipolar or schizophrenic diagnosis. Another group, Models for Change, found that in one single Illinois facility, 98% of juveniles were on some psychiatric medication despite there only being one psychiatrist on duty, contracted to work a measly 12 hours a week.
There’s no doubt that some of the juveniles within the system have mental health issues. And for some, medication might be the answer. However, medicating children at this level for questionable diagnosis doesn’t seem ethical at all, not to mention the revelation that parent consent wasn’t present in at least 40 cases studied by The Palm Beach Post.
Mental health funding is at a low and community programs to treat both adults and juveniles are disappearing. Jails have become the new asylums of years past. This is both sad and maddening. Are state run programs (not just in Florida) medicating the children to make their overpopulated facilities more manageable? And if doctors are allowed to receive “gifts” from the drug companies who ultimately make huge sales to the state, what would their reason be for erring on the side of safety in regards to the children? The only answer to this latter question would be their morals, but apparently those, like everything else, have a price.
© 2011, Elizabeth Renter. All rights reserved.