Many parents wonder about the efficacy of using only medication to treat their child’s psychiatric condition. While a full treatment of this question far exceeds the scope of a blog, it’s possible to briefly summarize some important themes and issues.
Clinical work limited to an initial interview and medication therapy risks misdiagnosis.
This is an example of an evidence-based, cost effective and clinically effective, outpatient evaluation for a child’s or teen’s mental health symptoms (assuming medical causes have been ruled out): a family interview, an interview alone with the youth, the collection of parent, teacher and child behavior rating scales and a review of relevant records. This is complex business and I worry about the accuracy of a diagnostic formulation if one or more of these elements is missing. Moreover, it is possible for a child to improve on a given medication without the child actually having the disorder that the medication is supposedly treating (e.g., low doses of stimulant medication will often improve the concentration of any child, regardless of whether or not that child has ADHD. Of course, sometimes it isn’t possible to do more than a brief interview and a medication trial, but if it’s possible to add the other elements that would probably be advisable in most instances.
There are some mental health conditions in youth for which medication treatment will almost always be a part of an evidence-based treatment plan (e.g., ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia). However, the best designed research studies on these conditions almost always indicates that evidence-based talk therapies (usually behavioral treatments) significantly improves the efficacy of the medication treatment (e.g., decreasing the dosage of medication needed, speeding along the management of the symptoms, strengthening the degree of improvement, reducing the odds of suicidality). Moreover, in the very large majority of instances, children with a psychiatric diagnosis have at least a second diagnosis as well, and many of these co-occurring conditions are either best treated with evidence-based talk therapy alone or are better treated when evidence-based talk therapy is added to the treatment plan.
Certain diagnoses, while perhaps improved with medication treatment, may not need such if evidence-based talk therapy is tried first.
For example, for mild to moderate depressive disorders and anxiety disorders, cognitive-behavioral therapy or other evidence-based treatments (e.g., interpersonal therapy for adolescent depression) may sufficiently manage or heal the presenting symptoms without the need to add medication therapy to the treatment plan. While these treatments take more effort than swallowing a pill, they may be preferred by parents who wish to avoid artificially altering their child’s brain chemistry when talking treatments may do the job as well or better.
There are many instances when the science on medication treatments leaves important questions unanswered.
There are many unanswered questions about the pros and cons of providing medication therapy to very young children as there are regarding the long term consequences of being on the same medication and the degree to which medication treatments alter the development of a youth’s brain. If a child needs medication treatment in order to avoid significant here-and-now impairment, most would agree that such questions often need to take a back seat. But, if a youth’s symptoms can be effectively treated either by not taking a pharmaceutical, or by taking a lower dose, that would appear to be a preferable choice in many instances.
The short-term conveniences affiliated with medication treatments should give us all pause.
I believe the best available evidence would support the position that effectively delivered talk therapies for youth spares money, aggravation and pain over the long run. However, in the short run, talk therapies may offer more hassles (e.g., additional costs and inconveniences) than medication treatments. Moreover, considering only short-term costs may create incentives for decision makers (e.g., insurance companies, clinicians with capitated insurance contracts, hectic parents) to gravitate towards treatment plans that only include medication therapy. Such factors should cause us all to pause and reflect on both the available scientific evidence and issues affiliated with longer term consequences.
A take home point is that it is usually a good idea to have a mental health professional on your child’s treatment team who is aware of the relevant science and clinical practicalities and who can help you to effectively navigate your choices. If you’re interested in speaking with a psychologist more about these matters, please click here.