CHILDREN who are merely shy or sad are at risk of being diagnosed with mental disorders and given powerful drugs, experts warn.
Psychologists say that new guidelines being developed in America will lead more young people seeing their common problems regarded as illnesses that must be treated, rather than just being given support.
They fear that pupils who are quiet at school could be diagnosed with “social anxiety disorder” while those who become withdrawn after suffering a bereavement are classified as having a “depressive disorder”.
Children who just talk back to adults or lose their temper regularly could be diagnosed with “oppositional defiant disorder”.
As a result, those found to have these increasingly broad mental disorders could be prescribed powerful medication such as Prozac or Ritalin to control or alter their behaviour.
Now the pressure is increasing for a national review of the use of such drugs on schoolchildren as well as more research into their long-term effects, following a vote at the TUC Congress on Wednesday.
Kate Fallon, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, told delegates: “Behaviours develop over a long period of time, often with a range of complex causes; we can’t ‘cure’ the behaviours we don’t like with a quick fix of medicine. They usually require careful management by all the adults around the child.
“In 2013 we’re expecting new criteria for the definition of mental illness to be adopted here in the UK. These criteria will lead to many more children being diagnosed as mentally ill, based on reports of their behaviours.
“A shy child could be diagnosed with social anxiety; a sad or temporarily withdrawn child could be diagnosed with depression.
“These are conditions which are also likely to be treated with medication – and under these circumstances, Congress, we will be putting potent drugs into children with little or no understanding of what it will lead to.
“In a society that wants quick results using drugs to improve behaviour is very tempting. But there can be other ways of improving children’s behaviour which typically involve time and energy from people.”
Research has found that children under the age of six are being prescribed the drug Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, prompting calls for the Department of Health to investigate the scale of the problem and the potential long-term damage it may be causing.
Recent figures show 650,000 children aged between eight and 13 are on the pscyhotropic drug, up from just 9,000 two decades ago, while others are taking Prozac for depression or anxiety.
Fears are growing that the number of children diagnosed with mental disorders and prescribed drugs will increase still further after 2013, when a new “bible” of the psychiatric profession is published.
Known as DSM-5, the book widens the diagnostic criteria for many supposed conditions including social anxiety disorder, better known as shyness, and will likely be adopted by the health authorities in Britain after appearing first in the US.
The proposed new definition for social anxiety disorder states that it is marked by “fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the person is exposed to possible scrutiny by others. Examples include social interactions (e.g., having a conversation), being observed (e.g., eating or drinking), or performing in front of others (e.g., giving a speech)”.
In children this fear could be expressed by “crying, tantrums, freezing, clinging, shrinking or refusal to speak in social situations”.
Young people will be deemed as having oppositional defiant disorder if they display symptoms including losing their temper, arguing with adults, deliberately annoying people or being “spiteful or vindictive at least twice within the past six months” to people other than their brothers or sisters.
The British Psychological Society has also raised concerns about the proposed revisions to the DSM.
It does not dispute that some children have emotional and behavioural problems but says that patients and the public are “negatively affected” by the continued “medicalisation” of natural and normal responses to their experiences, and that classifying such problems as “illnesses” ignores their wider causes.
Prof Peter Kinderman, chairman of the society’s Division of Clinical Psychology, said: “We’re not certain that a diagnosis and a medical response is the best way to help these kids.
“Absolutely understand and help, not necessarily diagnose and treat.”