Antidepressant prescribing amongst children and young people has shown a significant increase of 28% in the past decade, even though recorded diagnoses of depression have gone down, according to new research published today.
One in ten children and young people suffer from some kind of mental health problem, including depression and anxiety. Concerns about under-diagnosis and under-treatment contrast with worries about over-prescribing and the medicalisation of unhappiness in young people.
The research, published in Psychological Medicine, was led by Ann John, associate professor at Swansea University Medical School. The team looked at data from 358,000 registered patients between 6 and 18 years old, living in Wales, UK, between 2003 and 2013. The data was drawn from GPs and other NHS primary care services.
The research found that:
- Antidepressant prescribing rose significantly, by 28%, mainly in older adolescents
- Depression diagnoses showed a steady decline by just over a quarter, while symptoms of depression more than doubled
- Unlicensed citalopram prescribing occurs outside current guidelines, despite its known toxicity in overdose
- Just over half of new antidepressant prescriptions were associated with depression. The rest were associated with diagnoses such as anxiety and pain
The findings led the researchers to call for new strategies to implement current guidance for managing depression in children and young people.
Dr Ann John, associate professor at Swansea University Medical School, said: “These findings add to the growing debate over increasing prescribing of anti-depressants to children and young people.
The main issue is whether they being prescribed with enough cause. The rise in prescribing may reflect a genuine increase in depression and its symptoms, or increased awareness and better treatment by GPs, or poor access to psychological therapies and specialist care, or even increased help-seeking.
Whatever the explanation it’s important that each individual young person is listened to and gets the right kind of help for their problem. We need to support those who support young people and their families, helping them to act in keeping with current guidance.”
Dr John underlined the importance of responding appropriately to the needs of young people: “The teenage years are a phase of gaining independence, engaging with the world and testing boundaries. This can result in a normal developmental range of emotional responses- stress, loneliness, sadness and frustration. For others the mental health issues are more serious, and historically they were often not recognised, talked about or treated.
"Teenagers may be moving into adulthood without many of the skills necessary to deal with these issues if we don’t manage them well at an early age.
"It can be hard to distinguish between what is emotional turmoil and what warrants a mental health diagnosis in a young person.
"We need to ensure GPs are trained to really understand the lives and moods of young people, as well as knowing what warning signs they should look out for. For some young people reassurance that this is within the range of normal human experience may be appropriate. For others, talking therapies may be the best option, as they have a proven track record of improving symptoms for those with mild and moderate depression.
"In more serious cases, anti-depressants should be used together with talking therapies. Improving access to talking therapies is very important. Otherwise, if waiting times are too long, it’s more likely that a prescription will be given. If an antidepressant is required, fluoxetine should be the first option.”