There's No Clinical Proof They Help – So Why Are People With Developmental Disabilities Being Given Anti-Psychotic Medications?
A recent article in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry highlights a disturbing trend: the increasing use of antipsychotic drugs on people with developmental and intellectual disabilities such as Down's Syndrome and autism.
According to the study, almost 40% of developmentally disabled adults in the province of Ontario had been prescribed medications such as Abilify and Risperdal – and in three out of five cases, these people had not been diagnosed with any of the psychiatric conditions indicated for these drugs.
Aside from the fact that Abilify causes behavioral and self-control issues, it has also been linked to tardive dyskinesia, a movement disorder that causes the victim to experience jerky, spasmodic, involuntary muscle movements and tics. Furthermore, neuroleptic medications can have serious health consequences. Patients taking antipsychotics suffer from higher rates of diabetes and hypertension, as well as a greater risk of developing neuroleptic malignant syndrome, a potentially fatal condition affecting involuntary muscle function while causing rapid heartbeat, sleep difficulties and more. Parents of children who have been given Abilify also report substantial weight gain because of overeating.
Worst of all, there is no solid medical evidence to indicate that these drugs have any effect when there is no underlying psychiatric disorder.
Treating the mentally disabled with drugs is not a new practice, but in light of growing information about the harmful effects of neuroleptic drugs and the availability of alternative treatments, why does it continue?
It is no secret that society finds it more expedient to simply use chemicals rather than behavioral treatments when it comes to mental disabilities. Furthermore, too many primary health care providers are inadequately trained when it comes to the care of such individuals. Dealing with behaviors is difficult and takes its toll on caregivers, who often do not get the support they need – and of course, there is the dysfunctional education system and workplaces that lack the resources to deal with the developmentally disabled.
There is also the issue of money. Big Pharma makes a great deal of profit on the sales of antipsychotic prescription drugs. Relatively few patients wind up paying full price for these medications, but state and federal health programs have been buying these pills in huge quantities – which means they are easily available and accessible. At the same time, non-pharmacological treatments, which require actual human caregivers with specialized training, are costly. It's simply cheaper for society and more profitable for drug companies to keep intellectually disabled people medicated.
One country, the U.K., is taking steps to reverse this trend. Following the publication of a report in July 2015 revealing “widespread inappropriate use” of neuroleptic drugs on developmentally disabled individuals, the country's National Health Service initiated a three-year program known as STOMP (Stop Over-Medication of People). The project includes a pledge from mental health professionals and institutions to reconsider and change the way in which antipsychotic medications are given.
While such an initiative is a good start and should be implemented in the U.S., it doesn't go far enough. There needs to be greater awareness of the problem among primary care doctors, family caregivers and providers of social services. At the same time, we need legislators who are willing to stand up against the interests of Big Pharma, and acknowledge that in the long run, over-medicating the developmentally disabled is far more costly to society than the alternative.