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Kids And Psychiatric Drugs: Too Much, Too Soon?

Kelly Wallace is a CBS News Correspondent based in New York.
When I set out to do a story on the emotional debate surrounding the use of psychiatric drugs in children, I know I began with some preconceived notions. Weren't we, as a society, too quickly treating kids with these drugs and aren't some children too young to be taking them?

The story was prompted by a tragedy outside Boston – a four-year-old girl found dead, her parents accused of killing her by giving her repeated overdoses of anti-psychotic drugs. The little girl, Rebecca Riley, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was just two-and-a-half years old and treated with a mix of psychiatric medications.

I remember thinking, "Two-and-a-half years old, isn't that too young to be on such powerful drugs and isn't this case a tragic example of a system of treating mental illness in kids that has gone terribly wrong?"

Then I met Susan Montanile and her 13-year-old son Charlie Crow.

I was referred to Susan, a divorced mother of one, by the folks at the Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation. I was searching for a family which dealt with the tough decision of medicating children. (You can see the story by clicking on the monitor on the left.)

Susan's concerns about Charlie began when he was about six and started to experience bouts of rage. "The toughest time was when he was suicidal and didn't want to live and I didn't know where to go," Susan told me during a lengthy interview at her home in Verona, New Jersey.

Charlie was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When I asked him what it meant to be bipolar, he said, "You get really mad easily so let's just say I'm having a really fun time and someone makes a weird joke. Then I get really mad. So it's really hard to control."

As a new mother, my heart almost broke when, barely holding back tears, he said, "It's very hard for me, sometimes I even cry, it's so hard."

For the past six years, Charlie has been taking psychiatric drugs. Today, he takes three pills twice a day – an anti-psychotic, a mood stabilizer and another for anxiety.

"Plenty of people would say I can't believe you're giving him all those meds," Susan said, standing in front of a large bag filled with every drug Charlie's tried. "But if he had epilepsy or diabetes or cancer and was on a whole cocktail of medications, nobody would say to the parent, I can't believe you're giving your child insulin and an oral."

Susan says the medications have saved Charlie's life – and her own. "I wouldn't be giving my son medication if I didn't think it was life-saving, I wouldn't do it," she said.

Yes, we are seeing an increase in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children (a 400% rise between 1990 and 2000) and yes, there are cases where drugs are prescribed too quickly or shouldn't be prescribed at all. There are important issues to debate but when you meet a Susan Montanile and a Charlie Crow, you quickly realize the matter isn't black or white. And that, instead of passing judgment and looking down on families who decide to medicate their kids, perhaps what's needed is more research of mental illness in young children and more testing on the drugs which can change lives.

Just think about what it's like to walk in Charlie's shoes, when friends of his ask why he's so mad and he's embarrassed to say he has bipolar disorder.

"They say I hope it goes away," Charlie told me. "(But) bipolar disorder sticks with you. It never goes away."