Are children being over-medicated for mental health issues? We spoke to DR ADRIAN LOH, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at Promises Healthcare, who explained how doctors balance the use of drugs like or ODC or ADHD medication for kids with a duty of care in diagnostics and treatment.
Dr Loh’s general observation around healthcare in Singapore is that both parents and doctors remain cautious in the use of medication in children and adolescents being treated for mental health issues.
Yet, while it’s appropriate to exercise due diligence before starting medication – especially in view of possible side effects – there is a flip side when they’re withheld without good reason.
“This may be due to insufficient understanding of the medication,” says Dr Loh. “There may be unfounded fear of ‘addiction’ or concerns about costs of treatment, for example, or it could be because of the persistent underlying social and cultural stigma around mental illness.”
What to take into account when considering medication
The decision to use medication, he says, should be a carefully considered one, taking into account a few key areas.
In making a diagnosis, a good practitioner should also identify relevant factors that influence a child’s mental health condition, including their age and education level, the presence of other medical conditions, underlying temperament and personality traits, family and interpersonal relationships, as well as socio-cultural norms.
There should be an assessment of the severity of the child’s symptoms and the level of distress caused to the child – and in some cases, to those around him.
The practitioner should be able to confidently assess the impact of the condition across different areas of the child’s life.
For parents, stress around children’s mental health can be significant. For many of us, the tendency is to observe a child for signs of mental distress, but then wait to act. When we finally cannot intervene to help anymore as the child becomes a teen and even more inaccessible, we then realise it’s time to get professional help from therapists and psychiatrists.
From there, it can be an extended journey, according to Dr Loh. A patient may need months of therapy to unpack and get to the root of their fears, mood swings or erratic behaviour. Depending on the considerations mentioned earlier, the doctor will consider the use of medication to try to alleviate some of their symptoms at a suitable juncture.
“For example, a child could be diagnosed with mild ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), but if there is a significant impact on their friendships or their ability to cope with schoolwork, and if other attempts at helping, such as classroom management, have been unsuccessful, it may be timely to introduce the use of ADHD medication for kids.”
Patient and parent responses
Dr Loh also notes that not all medication is going to “work” the way we want it to. Every patient responds to therapeutic drugs in a different way. “Some drugs that are used to treat mental health conditions may not have the intended effect and the doctor may then have to cycle through several different types to land on the right one. This can be distressing for the patient as well as parents, who can feel that the child is ‘over-medicated’.”
It’s a conundrum that requires patience from all involved, as not trying medication altogether may cause more harm, he says.
“Another illustrative case is with OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). This is a condition that local and international studies have shown to be often characterised by a prolonged duration of untreated illness, extending even past a decade for some individuals. In many of the young people I’ve treated, my personal experience is that it would have been beneficial for them to have been started on medication much earlier in the course of their illness.”
At the same time, there are some instances where antidepressants may not be the most helpful solution. “Inappropriate use of medication is another valid concern,” says Dr Loh. “One example would be to ignore the underlying factors contributing to a child’s depressive symptoms. These could include unresolved grief after a death in the family, or feelings of helplessness or guilt about parents’ marital conflicts. In these situations, it’s wise not to offer antidepressants as a cure-all. Instead, offer counselling or other forms of therapies alongside the judicious use of medication to help the child in a holistic manner.”
In instances where parents describe “over-medication”, Dr Loh says that it could be possible that some children may have been offered medication without considering other alternatives. “When experiences of this kind are shared with other parents, it can lead to a perception that medication is overused.” He adds that if medication at a particular dose has been tried for a certain period and doesn’t result in an improvement of symptoms, this too can lead to an unwarranted generalisation that medication is ineffective.
It’s about taking the time to come to the right solution – because making or sticking to an inaccurate diagnosis can lead to the inappropriate use of medication. “If a teenager has symptoms of what we call hypomania (a less dramatic state of elevated mood) and those symptoms are missed and they are treated only with antidepressants, it can lead to a poor treatment response or even a worsening of what eventually can turn out to be a bipolar disorder.”
Mental health hangs in a delicate balance for both children and adults. It needs much more attention than we tend to give it, says Dr Loh – it’s all too easy to ignore the symptoms of unease and distress and block them with screen distractions. If you have concerns, he suggests speaking to a therapist as a key part of your self-care regimen.
About the doctor
Dr Loh is an experienced psychiatrist with a subspecialty focus in child and adolescent Psychiatry. He has a special interest in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and anxiety disorders, expertise in military and aviation psychiatry and a strong appreciation for the cross-cultural aspects of mental wellbeing.
This article was first published on the Expat Living Website on 30th March 2023 and written by Anna Murphy.
With the recent revelation of American rapper, Kanye West, being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, the condition has been brought into the spotlight. The term ‘Bipolar’ (meaning “two poles”) signifies the polar opposites of emotional highs and lows. As the name suggests, Bipolar Disorder is characterised by episodic, extreme mood swings in which the individual experiences intense mania and severe depression. Formerly known as ‘Manic-depressive Illness’, the disorder is a fairly common, yet serious mental health condition.
For individuals struggling with the disorder, manic episodes can last days to weeks and are often associated with hyperactivity, an irritable mood, rapid thoughts, increased recklessness, or an exaggerated sense of self-esteem and power. On the other hand, a depressive episode can last weeks to months. In this phase, individuals may experience increased restlessness, a loss of interest in activities (including those that they usually enjoy), poor concentration or disrupted sleep patterns. In more severe cases, these people may also possess suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
In order to help us better understand the condition, we interviewed Deborah Seah, a peer support specialist at Psaltcare.
Deborah started experiencing extreme mood swings in her early primary school years. Having known that her paternal family had a history of mental illness, she identified that her condition was most likely to be genetic. However, she had chosen to suffer in silence until 2 decades later, when she sought psychiatric help for postnatal depression and work-related burnout. At that point, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder as well as Generalised Anxiety Disorder. For Deborah, the disorder reigned control over her life – straining her relationships with her loved ones. Before her diagnosis, others could not understand why she was being so unpredictable, and her erratic behaviour had unfortunately caused numerous misunderstandings.
“It was very challenging to manage my mood swings at the tender age of 8,” she shared. “When I was experiencing my highs, I would talk very fast, have tremendous amounts of energy, get very excited, or become easily irritable and agitated. On the other hand, when I was experiencing my lows, I would feel very sad and experience low energy levels. I could cry for hours or days over trivial matters and be even suicidal at times. The experience of dealing with bipolar disorder consisted of feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and loneliness as I could not predict or control my emotions and energy.” Deborah’s experience with bipolar disorder led her to face an identity crisis – being confused over her contrasting “personalities”, and not knowing which was the real her.
Just like any other mental condition, there are bound to be misconceptions of the Bipolar Disorder, especially if people don’t open up and address it. One such misconception is that individuals struggling with Bipolar Disorder are incapable of managing their mood swings. However, Deborah takes this as an opportunity to debunk such a sentiment: “After a certain point in time, I’ve arrived at a higher level of self-awareness towards my early warning signs, and it has enabled me to gain self-mastery over my condition. When my mood or energy level starts to dip, I’m aware of what could effectively help me to increase my mood and energy. When my mood or energy level is overly high, I know that I need to be extra mindful of not going into overdrive.”
While on the road to recovery, Deborah made a commendable effort in helping herself cope with the disorder. This included reading up on the condition proactively to ensure that she could better achieve self-mastery. Of course, finding a silver lining and staying positive is essential over the course of recovery. Keeping up with articles on others’ success stories and breakthroughs helped her to stay hopeful and confident that recovery is not impossible.
Being highly motivated to make headway towards recovery, Deborah knew that she needed to make changes to her lifestyle. For starters, Deborah:
ensures that she keeps to a good sleep routine and to have sufficient rest
adopts a healthy lifestyle by having a balanced diet and staying active through exercise
stays in a conducive environment for recovery where all potential triggers are removed as much as possible.
She also notes that her Christian faith has played an essential part. Daily prayer and spiritual devotion helped her to calm her mind and provided her with the much-needed inner peace. However, Deborah stresses that one should not brush aside the idea of peer support or psychiatric intervention. The active use of medications coupled with peer support contributed to the turning point in her recovery, and restored any lost hope when the future was seemingly bleak. Connecting to like-minded peers can help one explore new coping strategies and stay on a personal wellness plan.
“Upon knowing my diagnosis, my family took the initiative to purchase books on Bipolar Disorder to understand my condition better,” Deborah recounted. “My family gave me space when I needed it and continually held hope for me even when I gave up on myself. They didn’t pressurise me to make quick progress on my recovery but assured me that they genuinely only wanted me to be happy and that is all that mattered to them. I was deeply touched by their love and concern for me and felt motivated to work hard on my recovery because I realised that they would always be affected whenever I’m suffering.” Through her experience, Deborah holds a strong belief that the hope and support from her loved ones had an immeasurable, significant impact on her, and encourages those who are also supporting their loved ones with mental conditions to stay hopeful.
As of today, Deborah has made promising progress and is well on her way towards achieving mental wellness. After consistently attending a Recovery and Wellness Sustenance (RWS) Workshop at IMH, Deborah graduated with a certificate of participation. Recognising that she benefited much from the workshop, she returned as a Mentor to co-train the subsequent class of peers. In addition, Deborah also completed a module conducted by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) and was involved in the facilitation for the 3rd and current 5th batch of Peer Support Specialist (PSS) training. She said, “It gave me confidence and reinforced my own recovery as I pay it forward and encourage my peers in their recovery journey. Moreover, it has equipped me with effective coping skills to deal with my mental health condition and it brought my recovery to a higher level.”
To end off, Deborah hopes to pass on an important message to the readers: “To me, there is no shame to be on psychiatric medication or seeking psychiatric help. Just like how people with diabetic conditions need to be on insulin while some people who are asthmatic need to be on Ventolin, people with psychiatric conditions need to take psychiatric medication too. Resilience in Recovery requires these 3 things: Courage – to embrace the past, Gratitude – for the gifts of the present, and Hope – to make the most of the future. I believe that everyone can recover from a mental health challenge, as long as he or she does not give up hope because I am the Evidence of Recovery myself! Everyone recovers at their own pace, just like every flower blooms in its season – let us hold the hope for our loved ones and for those who are battling mental health challenges by cheering them on and being their source of support to believe that recovery is indeed possible.”
CNA interviewed Dr. Joseph Leong about why some people become bystanders when their loved ones abuse their maids. He highlighted a “power differential” in which the maid abuser is typically the head of the household. Read on to find out the details.
*Visions is an addictions arm of Promises and we help assist clients in Singapore to enable them to improve their lives; and our website provides the images, names, languages, qualifications, and experience of specialists who can help.