Objectives: To examine the prevalence of psychotropic medication use by children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and children without ADHD. To identify factors associated with stimulant use by children in the community.
Design: A representative, multistage probability sample of Australian households was conducted in 1998. Parents completed questionnaires assessing children's mental health problems and health-related quality of life. They also completed a structured interview to identify children's psychiatric disorders and their use of medications during the previous six months.
Participants: Parent or main caregiver of 3597 children aged 6-17 years.
Main outcome measures: Rates of use of stimulants (dexamphetamine and methylphenidate), antidepressants and clonidine by children.
Results: Overall, 1.8% of children (95% CI, 1.5%-2.3%) were receiving stimulant medication. Of those with ADHD, 12.6% (95% CI, 9.8%-16.1%) were being treated with stimulants, 2.3% (95% CI, 1.3%-4.3%) with antidepressants, and 1.9% (95% CI, 1.0%-3.7%) with clonidine. Among children without ADHD, 0.5% (95% CI, 0.3%-0.8%) were receiving stimulant medication. This represented 22.9% (95% CI, 14.6%-34.0%) of all the children who were receiving stimulants. Variables significantly associated with stimulant use were being male, having ADHD, attending a paediatrician, and having higher scores on the Aggressive Behaviour and Attention Problems scales on the Child Behaviour Checklist.
Conclusions: About 13% of Australian children with ADHD, and a substantial number of children without ADHD, are taking stimulants. The question of whether Australian children are being undertreated or overtreated with stimulant medication depends on the criteria used to assess the appropriateness of stimulant use. Additional information is needed to clarify when stimulants should be used to treat ADHD.