Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, expressed concern Tuesday about the lack of school psychologists and mental health resources for youth.

Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, expressed concern Tuesday about the lack of school psychologists and mental health resources for youth.

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers  and mental health experts expressed concern Tuesday that doctors may be over-prescribing childhood psychotropic medications and called for increases in school psychologists and early intervention programs.

The use of the medications among youth rose 22 percent from 2001 to 2010, while the use of alternative behavioral treatments has remained stagnant, said Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Studies have shown that children prescribed antipsychotic medications are three times more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes, along with other adverse side effects such as weight gain and hormone disruptions, according to hearing testimony Tuesday.

“I’d like to better understand why this is happening and what we can do to make sure people are getting the right treatments,” said Harkin, D-Iowa. “I’m just really concerned about the over-medication of kids and how much they’re giving medication for which we don’t even know if it works or not.”

William Cooper, associate dean for faculty affairs at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, said there has been a “tremendous increase” in diagnosed mental health disorders in children in recent years. About one in 10 children experience mental health issues, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among children ages 12 to 17, according to research.

“Studies highlight the critical need to ensure that children receive an accurate diagnosis with careful attention to all possible conditions that might be present,” Cooper said.

Other experts at the hearing recommended that children be given specialized care and access to alternative treatments, such as exercise, controlled video game sessions and behavioral modification techniques.

John Arch, director and executive vice president of health care at the Boys Town National Research Hospital and Clinics in Omaha, Neb., said psychotropic medications should be used sparingly and only in specific treatment scenarios.

Psychotropic medications interact with the nervous system to treat disorders such as depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is commonly treated with drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin. However, there is little research examining their effects on youth.

“We are very concerned about the safety and efficacy of these drugs in young patients, especially the potential long-term effects on their development,” Arch said.

Insufficient mental health resources in early education need to be addressed, experts said. Harkin said the national average of 1,500 students for each school psychologist “alarmed” him. All of the experts at the committee hearing agreed on the need for more school psychologists and early intervention resources for mental disorders.

About 13 percent to 20 percent of children suffer from  mental health disorders in any given year, yet only 16 percent of that group receives services, said Benjamin Fernandez, a school psychologist in Loudon County, Virginia.

“Students come to school with more than a backpack and a lunchbox,” Fernandez said. “Some come to school with behavioral, social, emotional or mental health issues that impede their ability to be successful.”

With many mental health disorders diagnosed at a young age, schools are often the first point of contact for many struggling students. More collaboration and communication among schools, health care providers and families would improve students’ treatment, the experts said.

Early intervention programs and the inclusion of families in the treatment of their kids help, said Tiffany Martinez, a student at the University of Southern Maine Portland who has struggled with depression and psychosis. Access to the Portland Identification and Early Referral program allowed her to stay in school and finish her degree while also receiving treatment and support, she said.

“With early intervention, it can be managed and treated,” Martinez said. “If this was cancer, we wouldn’t wait to prevent it if we could. Why do we treat a disease like mental illness any different?”