The New York Times ran an excellent op-ed on Sept 21, “Shy on Drugs,” by Christopher Lane. Professor Lane takes psychiatrists to task for too readily diagnosing shy children as having “social anxiety disorder.” He pins a chunk of the blame on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM” for short), the diagnostic bible of the psychiatric profession:

[A] glance at the manual reveals that the diagnostic criteria for shyness are far from clear. The third edition, which was published in 1980, said that a person could receive a diagnosis of what was then called “social phobia” if he was afraid of eating alone in restaurants, avoided public restrooms or was concerned about hand-trembling when writing checks.

The same guidelines could hardly apply to youngsters heading to kindergarten, children not yet potty-trained and toddlers just learning to eat. So in 1987, the revised third edition of the manual expanded the list of symptoms by adding anticipated concern about saying the wrong thing, a trait known to just about everyone on the planet. The diagnostic bar was set so low that even a preschooler could trip over it.

The definition of this “disorder” then sets the stage for wholesale manipulation by pharmaceutical companies all too eager to offer up a pharmaceutical solution:

Then, having alerted the masses to their worrisome avoidance of public restrooms, the psychiatrists needed a remedy. Right on cue, GlaxoSmithKline [NYSE:GSK], the maker of Paxil, declared in the late 1990s that its antidepressant could also treat social anxiety and, presumably, self-consciousness in restaurants. Nudged along by a public-awareness campaign (“Imagine Being Allergic to People”) that cost the drug maker more than $92 million in one year alone…social anxiety quickly became the third most diagnosed mental illness in the nation, behind only depression and alcoholism. Studies put the total number of children affected at 15 percent — higher than the one in eight who psychiatrists had suggested were shy enough to need medical help.

In 2005, we gave one of our Bitter Pill Awards to GlaxoSmithKline for its marketing of Paxil, the Cure For the Human Condition Award. We pointed in particular to this fact:

In June [2005], the FDA issued a warning letter to GlaxoSmithKline for its “Hello, My Name is.” television ad campaign for Paxil. The FDA said that this ad wrongfully “suggests that anyone experiencing anxiety, fear, or self-consciousness in social or work situations is an appropriate candidate for Paxil CR” when these are simply not approved uses of the drug. Despite the warning letter, the harm had already been done as millions of consumers had already seen the ad.

This type of marketing, and the widespread diagnosing of shy children (and adults) as having a medical disorder as opposed to run of the mill shyness, is often cited as an example of “disease mongering.” It’s a symptom of a larger problem — the medicalization of an ever-increasing portion of the spectrum of normal human behavior. Anything that deviates from some pharmaceutically-determined median is now a candidate for an expensive, brand-name drug, from how shy we are to whether or not we occasionally can’t sleep to whether our legs twitch when we sit still to whether we have toenail fungus.

The prescribing of expensive, strong and often dangerous prescription drugs to ever growing numbers of children with shyness is ironically happening at the same time that an also every growing numbers of children are being prescribed expensive, strong and often dangerous prescription drugs for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Children generally are being prescribed more and more prescription drugs, even when such drugs have often not been tested on or approved for children. (We reported on another example recently: “Doctors widely prescribing drugs for kids’ sleep problems”)

There are no doubt some children who benefit from SSRIs such as Paxil and drugs for ADHD, for whom the benefits outweigh the often considerable risks. But they are undoubtedly a fraction of those children who are prescribed these drugs. We as a society are turning too quickly to the pharmacist for a solution to complex issues. Shyness, inability to pay attention, hyperactivity — these are not merely — or often even primarily, if at all — medical or biochemical issues. They’re affected by a broad range of factors, such as class size, nutrition, sleep, the quality of housing and one’s environment, the stability of home and family life, etc. It’s far easier to write a prescription than to tackle these larger problems. But the underlying problems will remain. Pharmaceutical companies are all too willing to pitch their solution, regardless of the harm it causes or whether it actually addresses any underlying problem.