The number of young children prescribed powerful stimulant medications to treat ADHD has surged in WA by more than 40 per cent in the past five years.
Government figures reveal that 2853 WA children under the age of 12 were on drugs to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder last year – including 223 aged two to six – compared with 2003 children in 2008.
The number of adults using medication rose 47 per cent, while the number of 12-to-16-year-olds on the drugs fell 5 per cent.
The Department of Human Services figures were obtained by the activist group Citizens Committee on Human Rights, which campaigns against the use of ADHD medication.
They show 62,000 children under 17 were prescribed medication such as Ritalin and dexamphetamine last year, costing the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme $28.6 million.
Experts are divided over the issue, with some arguing children are being diagnosed and treated for ADHD for convenience. Others say they are being undertreated.
Child psychiatrist Jon Jur- eidini, from the University of Adelaide, said some doctors were grossly overprescribing the drugs to children, including pre-schoolers.
He said ADHD had become a homogenous label for children with complex and varied psychological and behavioural issues. He had concerns that ADHD medication affected children’s growth and eating and sleeping patterns.
“There are two to six-year-olds with profound behaviour problems but I’m not convinced diagnosing them with ADHD and medicating them should be the response.” Perth psychiatrist Roger Paterson, who is on the professional advisory committee of WA’s Learning and Attentional Disorders Society, said it was encouraging that stimulant medication was used more because there had been concerns about under-treatment.
He said the National Health and Medical Research Council estimated that 5 per cent of children had ADHD but WA Health Department data showed only 1.3 per cent of the State’s children were on medication.
“Stimulant medications such as dexamphetamine and methylphenidate are an important part of a multi-modal treatment package for ADHD,” Dr Paterson said.
“If ADHD remains untreated, there can be severe long-term consequences such as academic failure, emotional and behavioural disturbance, substance abuse and widespread difficulties in adult relationships and employment.”
LADS president Marian Mau-ghan said everyone with ADHD should be able to get treatment, which could include medication.
“The under-treatment suggests some people may be deterred from seeking treatment for what is a recognised medical condition due to ill-informed information and comment,” she said.
This article first appeared on ‘The West Australian’ on 19 December 2014.