It's been clear for some time now that there's been an explosion in the use of prescription drugs to control mental illness.

But a new study shows just how far overboard we've gone.

Between 1996 and 2006, use of drugs such as antidepressants and antipsychotics have increased 76 percent among adults and 50 percent among children, according to a study published in May in the journal Health Affairs. Use of these drugs, including Alzheimer's medications, doubled among seniors during that period, according to that study.

Researchers believe the increase is due at least in part to the fact that more insurance plans cover these drugs, and more family doctors are comfortable writing prescriptions for them.

But the larger issue is that these drugs were already too widely used before, and now their use has just spiraled out of control.

I'm quite certain that most of these people could have been helped without these meds, which are often dangerous and can have very unpleasant side effects.

Some antidepressants even carry a black-box warning on the label, because youths who use them are at increased risk of suicide while taking them.

I rarely prescribe antidepressants to my patients. Not only are they too dangerous, but they often just don't work.

In most cases when I do, it's a short-term solution at best while we work to get the body functioning normally again. My goal is to get my patients off those antidepressants as quickly as possible.

To me, the most tragic part of this involves the children.

Kids simply should not be on these drugs in these numbers, especially when you consider that some of the worst side effects – such as that potential for increased suicidal behavior – disproportionately impacts the young.

I know that when children fall ill, the parents often suffer just as badly as the kids. All you want to do is see them better, and many people truly believe that's what a pill does – makes you better.

But that's not how it really works.

Take depression, for example. Most antidepressants do nothing to treat the underlying condition, which is often low serotonin levels.

The patient may look or seem better for a limited period of time, but unless you treat the cause, the problem never really goes away.

If you or your child is prescribed one of these pills, the first thing you should ask is if you really need it – and then ask about your alternatives.

A cure is better than an endless chain of prescription meds.