As a camp counselor for children with disabilities a couple years ago, I never stopped to consider that one of my bipolar campers may have been on eight different kinds of medication.

We’re in the age of “The Medicated Child,” (PBS’s new documentary) though the FDA has approved very few of these drugs for use in children. According to Dr. Patrick Bacon, a child psychiatrist, “It’s really to some extent an experiment, trying medications in these children of this age. It’s a gamble. And I tell parents there’s no way to know what’s going to work.” Parents propose many different explanations for the explosion in psychiatric prescription drug use.

In June 2006, the Archives of General Psychiatry found a fivefold increase in the use of drugs for children and adolescents with aggression and mood swings between 1993 and 2002. Experts told the NY Times the rise is partly because doctors are growing more comfortable with the newer generation of psychiatric drugs. That might be due to the secrecy shrouding many negative drug findings. Or the aggressive Pharma marketing to child psychiatrists.

Despite only a handful of small studies on antipsychotics in minors, the study found nearly one in five psychiatric visits for young people included a prescription for antipsychotics. And more than 40% of children on antipsychotics were taking at least one other psychiatric medication.

Said Dr. Julie Magno Zito, associate professor of pharmacy and medicine at the University of Maryland:

If you’re going to put children on three or four different drugs, now you’ve got a potpourri of target symptoms and side effects. How do you even know who the kid is anymore?

“The Medicated Child” provides a sobering glimpse of the difficult questions that still need to be answered about the effect of these powerful medications on children.