Documentary speaks to medication of kids — (Palm Beach Post)

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Palm Beach Post

By Carolyn Susman, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Some days it seems that autism is the new attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – the latest condition being diagnosed everywhere in children.

If only it had been diagnosed earlier in Gloria Berman’s young grandson, she wonders, maybe he wouldn’t have gone through medication hell at 6 years old. But then, she wouldn’t have produced Comfortably Numb, a 16-minute documentary – her first – in which the Tequesta resident interviews children and doctors who rail against the over-medication of children and speak out about their own bad experiences with side effects.

Among them is a young woman, Nicole, a Lake Worth teen who tried to kill herself at 16 by swallowing 25 antidepressant pills, Effexor XR.

She was taking a drug that, along with other antidepressants known as SSRIs, has been linked to suicide and violent tendencies in children under 18.

Warnings put out by Wyeth, its manufacturer, read: EFFEXOR XR is not approved for use in children under 18.

But Nicole was prescribed the pills, anyway, by a psychiatrist.

(The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved just one SSRI – Prozac – for use in depressed patients under 18, and recently asked manufacturers to mark labels with a warning statement that adults and children taking these drugs should be monitored closely for worsening depression or suicidal thoughts.)

“This is designed to be a wakeup call,” says Berman, the novice filmmaker, who produced the movie for less than $4,000.

“Nobody is saying don’t do it (prescribe psychiatric drugs for youngsters,) but try everything else first.”

Her grandson went through a litany of misdiagnoses – ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder – with his pills being changed and strengthened every few months.

So distressed was Berman’s daughter, Christina, about the effects on her son, that she finally sold her home in Arizona and moved into a small apartment so she could start a school for children with learning problems, the disability that triggered her child’s descent into medication madness.

The school eventually had to close for lack of money, but Christina’s son finally got the right diagnosis – mild autism – and, says Berman, “thrives with no medication at all.”

Her own personal experience, and attending a West Palm Beach seminar on the devastating effects of antidepressants in children under 18 – this is a documentary with a point of view, after all – prodded her into producing the film, which has been accepted into the Palm Beach International Film Festival. It will be shown at 1:45 p.m. Saturday at the Muvico at CityPlace.

A member of the International Documentary Association, Berman is working on a second film that she hopes will offer alternative approaches to mental health drugs for children.

“It breaks my heart to see families suffering when there are other options and approaches,” Berman says. “I see children receive diagnosis after diagnosis. I see children who attempt suicide, children who die as a result of taking medications. This has to stop.”

You won’t be neutral after viewing it.