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Medication for Children and Teens, Elderly, and Women in Childbearing Years

Children, the elderly, and pregnant and nursing women have special concerns and needs when taking psychotherapeutic medications. Some effects of medications on the growing body, the aging body, and the childbearing body are known, but much remains to be learned. Research in these areas is ongoing.

In general, the information throughout this site applies to these groups, but the following are a few special points to keep in mind.

Medication for Depression in Children and Teens

The 1999 MECA Study (Methodology for Epidemiology of Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents) estimated that almost 21 percent of U.S. children ages 9 to 17 had a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that caused at least some impairment. When diagnostic criteria were limited to significant functional impairment, the estimate dropped to 11 percent, for a total of 4 million children who suffer from a psychiatric disorder that limits their ability to function.1

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It is easy to overlook the seriousness of childhood mental disorders. In children, these disorders may present symptoms that are different from or less clear-cut than the same disorders in adults. Younger children, especially, and sometimes older children as well, may not talk about what is bothering them. For this reason, it is important to have a doctor, another mental health professional, or a psychiatric team examine the child.

Many treatments are available to help these children. The treatments include both medications and psychotherapy--behavioral therapy, treatment of impaired social skills, parental and family therapy, and group therapy. The therapy used is based on the child's diagnosis and individual needs.

When the decision is reached that a child should take medication, active monitoring by all caretakers (parents, teachers, and others who have charge of the child) is essential. Children should be watched and questioned for side effects because many children, especially younger ones, do not volunteer information. They should also be monitored to see that they are actually taking the medication and taking the proper dosage on the correct schedule.

Childhood-onset depression and anxiety are increasingly recognized and treated. However, the best-known and most-treated childhood-onset mental disorder is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children with ADHD exhibit symptoms such as short attention span, excessive motor activity, and impulsivity which interfere with their ability to function especially at school. The medications most commonly prescribed for ADHD are called stimulants. These include methylphenidate (Ritalin, Metadate, Concerta), amphetamine (Adderall), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, Dextrostat), and pemoline (Cylert). Because of its potential for serious side effects on the liver, pemoline is not ordinarily used as a first-line therapy for ADHD. Some antidepressants such as bupropion (Wellbutrin) are often used as alternative medications for ADHD for children who do not respond to or tolerate stimulants.

Based on clinical experience and medication knowledge, a physician may prescribe to young children a medication that has been approved by the FDA for use in adults or older children. This use of the medication is called "off-label." Most medications prescribed for childhood mental disorders, including many of the newer medications that are proving helpful, are prescribed off-label because only a few of them have been systematically studied for safety and efficacy in children. Medications that have not undergone such testing are dispensed with the statement that "safety and efficacy have not been established in pediatric patients." The FDA has been urging that products be appropriately studied in children and has offered incentives to drug manufacturers to carry out such testing. The National Institutes of Health and the FDA are examining the issue of medication research in children and are developing new research approaches.

The use of the other medications described in this booklet is more limited with children than with adults. Therefore, a special list of medications for children, with the ages approved for their use, appears immediately after the general list of medications. Also listed are NIMH publications with more information on the treatment of both children and adults with mental disorders.

Medication for Depression in the Elderly

Persons over the age of 65 make up almost 13 percent of the population of the United States, but they receive 30 percent of prescriptions filled. The elderly generally have more medical problems, and many of them are taking medications for more than one of these conditions. In addition, they tend to be more sensitive to medications. Even healthy older people eliminate some medications from the body more slowly than younger persons and therefore require a lower or less frequent dosage to maintain an effective level of medication.

The elderly are also more likely to take too much of a medication accidentally because they forget that they have taken a dose and take another one. The use of a 7-day pill-box, as described earlier in this brochure, can be especially helpful for an elderly person.

The elderly and those close to them--friends, relatives, caretakers--need to pay special attention and watch for adverse (negative) physical and psychological responses to medication. Because they often take more medications--not only those prescribed but also over-the-counter preparations and home, folk, or herbal remedies--the possibility of adverse drug interactions is high.

Medication for Women in Childbearing Years

Because there is a risk of birth defects with some psychotropic medications during early pregnancy, a woman who is taking such medication and wishes to become pregnant should discuss her plans with her doctor. In general, it is desirable to minimize or avoid the use of medication during early pregnancy. If a woman on medication discovers that she is pregnant, she should contact her doctor immediately. She and the doctor can decide how best to handle her therapy during and following the pregnancy. Some precautions that should be taken are:2

  • If possible, lithium should be discontinued during the first trimester (first 3 months of pregnancy) because of an increased risk of birth defects.
  • If the patient has been taking an anticonvulsant such as carbamazepine (Tegretol) or valproic acid (Depakote)--both of which have a somewhat higher risk than lithium--an alternate treatment should be used if at all possible. The risks of two other anticonvulsants, lamotrigine (Lamictal) and gabapentin (Neurontin) are unknown. An alternative medication for any of the anticonvulsants might be a conventional antipsychotic or an antidepressant, usually an SSRI. If essential to the patient's health, an anticonvulsant should be given at the lowest dose possible. It is especially important when taking an anticonvulsant to take a recommended dosage of folic acid during the first trimester.
  • Benzodiazepines are not recommended during the first trimester.

The decision to use a psychotropic medication should be made only after a careful discussion between the woman, her partner, and her doctor about the risks and benefits to her and the baby. If, after discussion, they agree it best to continue medication, the lowest effective dosage should be used, or the medication can be changed. For a woman with an anxiety disorder, a change from a benzodiazepine to an antidepressant might be considered. Cognitive-behavioral therapy may be beneficial in helping an anxious or depressed person to lower medication requirements. For women with severe mood disorders, a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is sometimes recommended during pregnancy as a means of minimizing exposure to riskier treatments.

After the baby is born, there are other considerations. Women with bipolar disorder are at particularly high risk for a postpartum episode. If they have stopped medication during pregnancy, they may want to resume their medication just prior to delivery or shortly thereafter. They will also need to be especially careful to maintain their normal sleep-wake cycle. Women who have histories of depression should be checked for recurrent depression or postpartum depression during the months after the birth of a child.

Women who are planning to breastfeed should be aware that small amounts of medication pass into the breast milk. In some cases, steps can be taken to reduce the exposure of the nursing infant to the mother's medication, for instance, by timing doses to post-feeding sleep periods. The potential benefits and risks of breastfeeding by a woman taking psychotropic medication should be discussed and carefully weighed by the patient and her physician.

A woman who is taking birth control pills should be sure that her doctor knows this. The estrogen in these pills may affect the breakdown of medications by the body--for example, increasing side effects of some antianxiety medications or reducing their ability to relieve symptoms of anxiety. Also, some medications, including carbamazepine and some antibiotics, and an herbal supplement, St. John's wort, can cause an oral contraceptive to be ineffective.


References

1. Department of Health and Human Services. 1999. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institute of Mental Health.

2. Altshuler LL, Cohen L, Szuba MP, Burt VK, Gitlin M, and Mintz J. Pharmacologic management of psychiatric illness during pregnancy: Dilemmas and guidelines. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1996; 153(5): 592-606.


Source: The National Institute of Mental Health, NIH Publication No. 02-3929, May, 2002



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