Annotation: The use of psychotropic medications in children: a British view


David Bramble, Consultant Child & Adolescent Learning Disability Psychiatrist, Telford & Wrekin Primary Care Trust, Longbow House, Longbow Close, Harlescott, Shrewsbury SY1 3AS, UK. E-mail:


Background: Prescribing practices relating to the use of psychotropic medication with mentally disordered children have changed significantly in Britain over recent years.

Methods: I conducted a review of the modest body of empirical data available relating to the prescribing practices of child psychiatrists, paediatricians and general practitioners (primary care physicians). The data were obtained primarily from postal questionnaire studies but also from British drug studies and a government-sponsored evaluation of the efficacy of stimulant medication. Postgraduate training guidelines for the three principal clinical disciplines are also discussed.

Results: Systematic evaluation of prescribing practices has a relatively short history. All the studies reviewed demonstrated consistent methodological weaknesses, the most important of which was reliance upon retrospective reports of prescribing practices from clinicians with no analysis of actual prescription data. No studies relating to the general use of psychotropic medication by paediatricians were found. Child psychiatrists and general practitioners appear to be using a range of drugs for a range of conditions; however, there was evidence of intra- and interdisciplinary variations in practice. It was also evident from the general practitioner data that drug treatments were frequently used for conditions best managed with behavioural methods (e.g., common sleep problems and enuresis). Government prescription data relating to methylphenidate use in ADHD reveal a dramatic rise over the past ten years. Currently, most child psychiatrists use this treatment compared to approximately half the profession only seven years ago. The use of newer antipsychotic agents as well as the SSRI antidepressants appears to be growing in child psychiatric practice. A majority of clinicians surveyed believed that medication was an important treatment modality but also felt that they were relatively unskilled in the field and requested further training.

Conclusions: Overall, a picture of both a growing and better informed use of psychotropic medication is emerging in Britain despite shortcomings in postgraduate training. Future research needs to evaluate prescribing practice in a more objective manner in order to improve training and also service developments in the field.