Communication, Transparency Needed on Use of Psych Meds, Study Says

Preliminary findings of a study examining the use of psychotropic drugs to treat foster youth and juvenile offenders suggest a need for increased transparency and communication among service providers.

The Chronicle reported last week that Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee planned to “play offense” on this issue.

The study is being conducted by the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services with support from the Zellerbach Family Foundation and is titled “An Environmental Scan on the Use of Psychotropic Medications with Children in Foster and Juvenile Care.”

The research includes interviews with former foster youth and non-minor dependents, caregivers, professionals, and other data and quality assurance professionals.

Among the significant findings:

  • the importance of ending forceful medication practices that involve more than one prescription.
  • a need for reevaluations in the prescribing process in order to prevent misdiagnosing.
  • a lack of consistency related to forms, data entry, and sharing of information with appropriate people.

Interviews with foster youth suggest that a choice in the prescription process and transparency about issues surrounding their health, as well as stability in their surroundings, lead to a healthier and better way of working with psychotropic medications.

The federal government could significantly improve the process when it comes to psychiatric drugs and foster youths, said a Government Accountability Office report released late last week. The study, which used expert reviews of 24 case studies, found that informed consent to use the drugs was frequently not obtained and the prescriptions were not appropriately monitored.

During interviews conducted with service providers and professionals, participants noted a lack of communication across different departments as a barrier to being able to prescribe and diagnose effectively. Concerns are generally focused on the over-prescription and under-regulation of psychotropic medications.

“Kids are on psychotropic drugs longer than anyone else in the Medicaid population,” said Bill Grimm, Senior Attorney for the National Center for Youth Law, during a presentation for the research.

A large part of the work that lead research consultant Anna Johnson is looking to initiate involves increasing collaboration between different youth services agencies in Alameda County and clarifying specific roles.

“Data and information sharing can help to clarify which departments do what, and help to keep a better trail of what a youth needs in terms of medications,” Johnson said during her presentation.

Foster Youth
Former foster youth who were interviewed for a study relating to psychotropic medications and mental health. From left to right: Tisha Ortiz, Precious Watson, Deloris Sharp.

“We have to get to the root of the problem,” said Precious Watson, one of the former foster youth who spoke with Johnson. “We just can’t prescribe youth or adults with medications not really knowing where they’re at. You can give a child medication, and it can make their whole illness blow up,” said Watson.

Deloris Sharp, a former foster youth who now runs her own consulting business, also dealt with problems when it came to diagnosing and treating her mental illness while in the foster care system.

“People were so focused on reunification, they didn’t touch me on any of my illnesses,” she said, “I didn’t find out until I had a severe mental break that I had a mental illness.”

“Personally, I think that kids should have case managers and therapists that should be able to explain to them what’s going on with their mental health,” said Tisha Ortiz, another one of the foster youth who spoke at the presentation. “That way they know why they have to take their medication and what it can do if they don’t take it or if they do take it.”

Final results of the research are to be released in August, 2014, and will be presented by Johnson to the public, service providers and other professionals.

Victor Valle is a reporter at the Chronicle of Social Change.

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