Unexpectedly large numbers of people with learning disabilities are being prescribed strong psychiatric drugs, possibly as a “chemical cosh” to quieten those with challenging behaviour, according to new research.
A study published online by The British Medical Journal found that the number of people registered with GP practices with an intellectual or learning disability, who are being treated with psychotropic drugs far exceeds those with mental illness.
If people without mental illness are given psychotropic drugs, such as the powerful antipsychotics more usually prescribed for people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, it is probably to control their behaviour, say the study’s authors, from University College London (UCL).
“I think there’s been concern for a long time that psychotropic medications are being overused in people with intellectual disabilities,” said Rory Sheehan, an academic clinical fellow at UCL and lead author of the paper.
He and his fellow authors were concerned, he said, because it is quite difficult to justify the use of strong drugs such as antipsychotics, which can have problematic side effects, except in specific circumstances or as a last resort. “You wouldn’t want to give these medications without quite strong justification,” he said.
There will be some people who are on such drugs for very good reasons, he said, but the researchers found that of 9,135 people in their study with intellectual disabilities and treated with antipsychotic drugs, 71% – or 6,503 people – did not have a record of severe mental illness.