The tragic side effects include suicide, addiction and self-harm

When Stephen Bailey was eight years old, he was prescribed Librium by his doctor. That was the beginning of a 24-year addiction to mind-altering drugs which, Bailey says, changed the course of his life and saw him descend into a world of fits, screaming and violence whenever he tried to withdraw. A commonly-used tranquilliser, Librium is one of the benzodiazepine family, and was prescribed to calm Bailey after he suffered from migraines and flashing lights in response to a routine set of vaccinations.

"I became absolutely petrified of the world, full of terror, in particular that I would swallow my tongue," says Bailey. "It felt like my mind was controlled by something else and I retreated into my own world. They affected my thinking in every way. I felt like I was chemically lobotomised."

Because of stories such as this, Librium, Valium and other member of the benzodiazepine family, are now not routinely prescribed to children. But that doesn't mean we have stopped medicating our children - far from it. New figures released last month show that in the past decade the number of prescriptions for mind-altering drugs, including anti-depressants such as Prozac, given to children under the age of 16 has more than quadrupled. Last year, there were more than 631,000 cases of drugs such as these given for mental health problems. In the mid 1990s, this figure was 146,000.

This increase is in spite of guidelines from Nice(the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) that GPs should offer three months of " talking therapy" before reaching for the prescription pad.

The issue was highlighted by the case of Mollie Murphy, who last year was prescribed a course of anti-depressants at the age of four after she became distraught at being separated from her friends when she failed to get a place at her local school. "We are in danger of not having learnt from the benzodiazepine story," says child psychiatrist Dr Mike Shooter, chairman of the children's mental health charity Young Minds. "People saying we're going through the same cycle with anti-depressants. The prescription rate is rising fast, and it worries me."

According to Dr Shooter, the reasons for the dramatic increase in prescriptions are complex. "One factor is the pharmaceutical companies marketing these drugs as happiness in the form of a pill," he says. " In the process they have concealed the fact that they don't actually bring happiness. There is also controversy at the moment about drug companies concealing lack of effectiveness." Dr Shooter believes that young people are increasingly turning to doctors with problems of life rather than actual depression. "The demand for a diagnosis is great," he says. "The greater the pressure the GP is under, the greater the temptation to reach for the prescription pad."

According to a Unicef report published earlier this year, the UK is now one of the least happy places for a young person to be brought up in the whole of western Europe. "There are more socio-economic problems facing children these days than there have ever been," says Dr Shooter. " I've worked in areas where there's a lot of family breakdown, alcohol abuse, violence and so on. It's pretty desperate, and young people living in these situations can be miserable. Half the kids I saw would satisfy the criteria of ADHD or depression - but they were just reacting behaviourally to the mess they lived in. The answer is not a pill."

Misery and living in a mess, of course, are not the same thing as depression. But improving life circumstances requires huge societal change, and while counselling can help with psychological and behavioural problems, resources are scarce and waiting lists for therapists are long. " Counselling takes a long time and often it's not the message that the children, or their parents, want to hear," says Dr Shooter. " People are much more comfortable to have it described as an illness and look for a cure."

Last year, a survey of GPs found that two thirds of them said they had seen a rise in the numbers of children with mental health problems including depression, self-harm and eating disorders. But is prescribing anti-depressants helping the situation? Some experts believe that drugs such as these simply don't work on young minds. "Anti-depressants do not work in this age group," says child psychiatrist Dr Sammi Timimi, author of Mis-understanding ADHD, the Complete Guide for Parents to Alternatives to Drugs, (Amazon, ยฃ11.99). "There have been several double-blind placebo trials which uniformly show that sugar pills worked just as well as the Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors SSRIs (a class of antidepressants)."

But, says Dr Timimi, the practice has become institutionalised. "If a GP is faced with a distressed adolescent and is used to prescribing anti-depressants and having them come back saying they feel better, then he's going to carry on prescribing. It's a triumph of marketing over science. "

Not only do the drugs not work, there is ongoing controversy over the side-effects of some SSRIs, and over how much information the manufacturers have released about their own research into the dangers. "For some people, these drugs can actually make them suicidal," says Dr Timini. " The withdrawal symptoms can cause a manic reaction. The published results - let alone the unpublished ones - show these drugs are not effective, and are actually dangerous."

Sharise Gatchell, from Sussex, was 16 years-old when she was prescribed the SSRI anti-depressant Seroxat, to help with depression and acute shyness. " She suffered from a dramatic personality swing. At times I found her hostile and aggressive," says her father, Alfred. Gatchell started to self-harm, which is a recognised side effect of the drug. She stopped taking it, but two years later, unbeknown to her parents, she went to a doctor who prescribed the drug to her again. In May, 2003, at the age of 18, Gatchell committed suicide by hanging herself from the loft hatch at her parents' home. A few weeks later, manufacturers Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) admitted that Seroxat can cause some people to have suicidal thoughts and tendencies. " The scandal isn't only thousands of suicide attempts. It is about damaging young people's growing brains, devastating their health, stunting growth and causing side effects that lead to further drugging and destruction," says Gatchell's mother, Stephanie. "No one knows exactly what the long-term effects will be. I predict an epidemic of mental health and health problems, as SSRIs cause pathological brain damage. These young kids will end up as lifelong pharmaceutical customers." Dr Shooter agrees. " Some may appear to be helpful in the short-term," he says, "but I don't know that we have long-term knowledge of what these drugs can do to the mind."

Four years ago, guidance was published that most anti-depressants, including Seroxat, should not be prescribed to under 18s. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), revealed that GSK's own studies showed the drug actually trebles the risk of suicidal thoughts in depressed children. The recommendations did not, however, include Prozac, and appear to have had little impact on the rate at which anti-depressants are prescribed to youngsters.

"My parents trusted the doctors," concludes Stephen Bailey. " We were told the drugs were safe, when in fact they we re causing symptoms of their own. But whatever was wrong with me, it never occurred to anyone that it was the fault of the pills." *

Dawn Keegan, 50: 'He wasn't even depressed'

Like many teenagers, my 19-year-old son Adrian was going through a stage where he'd get very angry. He'd have a drink and thump the wall in a temper. He didn't have a job, but he wasn't depressed. I took him to the GP, hoping for an anger-management course, what he got instead was a course on the anti-depressant Seroxat.

He was only on them for 26 days when he killed himself. The night he died, my husband Christopher and I went round to his flat. The lights were on but he wasn't answering, I knew something was wrong and felt so uneasy I even rang the police. They told me I was overreacting. But I knew in my gut something wasn't right.

The next morning Chris went back to the flat, broke down the door and discovered Adrian's body. He'd hanged himself from the bathroom door. He rang me at work and just said, 'I found him, he's gone.'

The coroner's report showed he'd killed himself in the early hours of that morning. The effects have devastated our family. For two years Chris had terrible flashbacks and our other children Kyle, 21, and Laura, 19, have been badly affected as well. I also had years of counselling.

At the inquest there was no mention of drugs, but we have no doubt that is what caused his death. We've since found out that the drug companies knew from research that suicide was a possible side-effect, but they suppressed it.

I blame myself. If I hadn't taken him to the GP, he'd still be here. He was a strong, good-looking boy who had everything to live for. We don't believe he even needed medication. He was nowhere near depressed. We've both suffered from real depression since, and know the difference. He was a teenager, going through the usual emotional ups and downs. Drugs should never have been in the equation.