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Pills in class, headache for staff

By Ewin Hannan, Amanda Dunn
May 1, 2004

Principals say that the growing number of children taking antidepressants and stimulants during school hours is putting a significant strain on staff, who say they are not trained to hand out prescription drugs.

Primary school principals said only a small number of schools employed nurses, forcing teachers, teachers' aides and office staff to dispense medication with little or no expertise.

The rise is not confined to "high need" schools in poorer areas; teachers in the more well-to-do suburbs have also noticed the trend.

The president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Andrew Blair, said the number of students taking medication for emotional or behavioural problems had risen significantly in recent years.

He said the pressure to prescribe came from a number of sources, including parents.

"It's parents in a sense, saying 'I'm concerned about your welfare, and therefore I'm going to make certain that you're OK during the day and listen, if things go bad, just pop one of these pills'," he said.

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The Age reported this week that children and adolescents are being prescribed antidepressants and stimulants in record numbers.

The president of the Victorian Primary School Principals Association, Fred Ackerman, said his

"gut feeling" was that children were too readily being put on medication.

"Is it because we are better at diagnosis and there is a greater range of medication available?" Mr Ackerman asked.

"Or is it as a result of changes in society - inappropriate diet, lack of parenting skills and support. It's probably a mixture of both."

But child health experts said inappropriate parenting was just one potential cause.

Parents Victoria president Gail McHardy said parents were often frustrated that their concerns were not listened to by school or department staff.

"Sometimes parents have to resort to these measures because the school has said 'look, if you want your child to stay at the school, you have to get the problem sorted'." She said some parents felt that medication was the only option.

The general secretary of the Victorian Independent Education Union, Tony Keenan, said the union had received many calls from teachers in non-government schools asking about their rights and responsibilities when dispensing medication to children.

The Catholic Education Office has commissioned a study, with the Royal Children's Hospital, on the rising number of children on prescribed medication and the effectiveness of the drugs.