Ritalin, talking therapies and what I think our kids really need…

The Health Minister, Simon Burns has said that the chief medical officer and the NHS medical director are planning to write to clinicians to remind them of the full range of NICE guidelines on conditions—including ADHD—that affect children's mental health. It came in response to an adjournment debate on 25th October 2011 called by MP Pat McFadden on the rise in prescriptions for children of the drug methylphenidate (Ritalin, Equasym etc) used to treat people affected by the symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity. These symptoms affect behaviour and the ability to learn and as well as being found in ADHD, are also co-morbid in young people with autism, Asperger Syndrome and other similar development disorders.

Mr McFadden made a plea for the Minister to carry out a proper, comprehensive review of the use of these drugs involving professionals from the medical, psychology and teaching fields, as well as the families of those who have been prescribed the drugs. He asked the Minister, "Will he commit his Department to carry out a proper research project into the use of the drugs, including the age of the children receiving them? Secondly, in the light of the huge growth in prescriptions, will the Government carry out a proper review of practice in the field, as called for by the Association of Educational Psychologists, before the new guidance comes into effect in 2013?"

Mr Burns said he himself had a family member who was successfully being treated with Ritalin. "Across hospital and primary care, the prescribing of drugs for ADHD increased by around 12.5% between 2007 and 2010, the latest four years for which data are available, and by around 6% in 2010 alone. Prescribing in primary care alone increased by 22% in that four-year period, reflecting a significant shift in prescribing activity from a hospital setting and into primary care. Looking back further, one sees that prescribing in primary care has tripled in the past 10 years."

However he pointed out that the cost of doing nothing was too great for those affected and that, if left untreated, mental health problems can lead to low attainment in school, antisocial behaviour, drink and drug misuse, worklessness and even criminality in adult life. He said, "Getting things right for children and their families—through a broad range of support to promote good mental health from the start of life, through the school years and into adulthood—can make a real difference to young lives."

Yesterday, the government announced a further £32 million pounds for child mental health services, including talking therapies. While this may seem like a lot, when split across the country, it might not go as far as hoped. Talking therapies take time and require therapists qualified in techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy, particularly in its use with children. I believe that this issue should not be looked at in isolation. It is an educational, parenting and medical issue all at the same time.

In educational terms, it should be looked at whether the right learning environments are available to teach children for whom sitting still in a classroom is impossible. There is plenty of practical advice available giving tips and strategies to help manage students with ADHD and help them thrive in a regular school environment. What is needed is the will to implement them consistently at a classroom level. That takes teacher training. And when I say consistent - that is key. One of my sons one year in mainstream had a teacher who managed him well. The next year he moved into a class with an older teacher who didn't even realise he had a diagnosis, let alone the will to adapt her teaching style to help him. It's no use having teaching assistants who are just mums looking for a part-time job. If they are to work with learning disabled children or those with attention or hyperactivity issues that may be clouding their true ability, the TAs need to be well trained. Some are and sadly, some aren't. That's not good enough. Our ASD sons were both treated for a while with medication. But they no longer need it because they are now in the right educational setting. This is not only my view, it was  the opinion of their paediatrician, an experienced and well-respected man.

Parenting wise, parents who have children with difficulties need support. They need to learn techniques to manage their children effectively and I'm not talking only talking about parents from lower down on the social scale. Just because you have a good job or a good education does not mean you come automatically equipped with the parenting skills needed to cope with life in a household where there is constant stress and discord because of the behaviour of one of your children. I know, I've been there and I know plenty of other middle-class good parents in the same boat.

Medically, and here we come back to Mr McFadden's debate in parliament, we need GPs who don't fob parents off, and we need specialists who listen to parents and who have the knowledge of and access to, up to date research and therapies pertaining to children's mental health. They need to be able to work with parents, schools and CAMHS together to be able to put the right package of treatment together for the child concerned. Yes, it takes time and money - well they've just given £32 million, so there's cash to be spent. But when you are talking about a child's future you cannot take a piecemeal approach. Questions such as why is the child having the behavioual isssue - is there an underlying medical condition? Are they dyslexic? Do they have a speech and language problem that has gone unrecognised? A holistic approach is needed. Many of children like these turn out to be gifted in one area or another and need to be given the chance to let their talents find a way to the surface. If nothing else, in the 21st century and with all the research already available it should be within our power to help some of our most vulnerable people to thrive.

Lastly - and this is key. the media should stop being so damn judgemental of parents and children with behavioural problems and yes, Daily Mail, I'm talking to you and your readers who are so quick to condemn and who publish ill-informed opinions and blatant untruths about this already embattled section of society. I believe the reason the Health Minister, Mr Burns, gave such a thoughtful and informed response was because he himself has personal knowledge of the issues. Which just proves the adage about walking in other people's shoes.

Tania Tirraoro
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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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