THE Bavarian Teachers' Federation has warned of an alarming rise in the number of primary pupils taking medication for stress or simply to improve school performance.
One in five primary children in Germany is taking medication for these reasons, the union said, following surveys carried out by health authorities in southern Germany.
Studies elsewhere in Germany have borne out the startling new figures. Dr Klaus Hurrelmann, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Bielefeld's Public Health Faculty, estimates that as many as one in three German pupils aged five to nine pops pills regularly.
The authorities maintain that a decade ago less than 10 per cent of primary school pupils were on regular medication. "Use has grown steadily because of stress at school," said the Bavarian Teachers' Federation.
The medication is often bought over the counter by parents concerned about their children's performance at school and to combat sleeplessness, lack of appetite, headaches and stomach aches - classic symptoms of stress - as well as to improve concentration.
Medication includes growing use of Ritalin (available only on prescription) to aid concentration, psychotropic mood-altering drugs and tranquillisers, which are often addictive, and codeine or caffeine-based stimulants.
Aggressive advertising by drug companies, more information about availability of medicines and the ease with which medication can be obtained despite strict regulations in Germany, has contributed to the rise, as have parents' rising expectations of children's academic performance.
"There is a trend to rely on medication to help reach goals," said Dr Hurrelmann, who believes only about half of all medication use among children is justified and appropriately administered. Much of it is self-administered.
Even in more severe cases "medication only makes sense if it is accompanied by psychological and educational support and training to deal with problems," Dr Hurrelmann said. "Instead families are relying on medication as a crutch."
Hamburg University's clinic for child and adolescent psychiatry found in a study of 2,000 families across Germany that one in five children between the ages of four and 18 needed therapy for psychological problems, often induced by stress over school performance.
The figures bear out concerns that mental health problems among children are rising Europe-wide. In Britain, the Mental Health Foundation estimates that 10 per cent of five to 15-year-olds experience mental health problems. Dr Hurrelmann puts the number of children experiencing real psychological problems at nearer 15 per cent in Germany.
The Bavarian Teachers' Federation found that primary pupils today are more concerned about exams and marks than in the past, as post-school academic qualifications are seen as more important than a decade ago when many were happy to obtain industrial apprenticeships and learn a trade. Pressure at the age of 10, when many pupils face exams to determine entry to selective grammar schools, is cited as another factor and high parental anxiety is transferred to children.