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Kids Brave Anxiety With Zoloft

October 31, 2008

The most common psychiatric illnesses in children are successfully treated with a popular antidepressant and months of psychotherapy, according to researchers.

The study found the drug sertraline, available as a generic and under the brand name Zoloft, worked best when combined with therapy.

Dr. John Walkup, lead author of the government-funded research, said each method alone also had big benefits.

The study, published online in the New England Journal of Medicine, was scheduled for presentation Thursday at an American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry meeting in Chicago.

Experts say anxiety disorders affect 20 percent of U.S. children and teens.

Dr. Walkup said, quite often, symptoms nearly disappeared in children previously so anxious that they wouldn’t leave home, sleep alone, or hang out with friends.

“What we’re saying is we’ve got three good treatments,” he said.

The study involved 488 children aged 7 to 17 treated at six centers around the country. They were randomly assigned to one of four 12-week treatments. The different either took 200 milligrams of sertraline daily; 14 hour-long sessions of psychotherapy alone; both treatments together; or dummy pills.

In the combined treatment group, 81 percent of children were improved by three months, compared with 60 percent in the therapy-only group, 55 percent in the sertraline-only group, and 24 percent in the placebo group.

Zoloft is mainly used to treat adult depression and anxiety. It’s approved for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder in kids, but not anxiety, although some doctors use it for that.

The new study, paid for by the National Institute of Mental Health, is the largest examining treatment of childhood anxiety disorders.

Dr. Sharon Hirsch, a University of Chicago psychiatrist, said the study echoes benefits she’s seen in her own young anxiety patients on both treatments.

However, she said the findings show that therapy alone is also good news for parents who don’t want to put their children on an antidepressant.

Many kids have occasional fears or anxiousness, but those with full-fledged anxiety disorders are almost paralyzed by these feelings.

Three types of disorders were studied: separation anxiety, generalized anxiety and social phobia, Walkup said.

“These kids were really miserable at the start of the study,” and many ended up “really happy,” co-author Dr. John March of Duke University said.

In the past, sertraline was one of a handful of antidepressants linked with suicidal thoughts and behavior in children.

However, only a handful of the more than 200 kids using it had suicide-related thoughts and there were no suicide attempts in the study’s population.

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