Antidepressant use among children increases by almost 30%
Science festival hears study followed data from 358,000 patients aged between six and 18
“Drugs are being prescribed more, there’s no doubt about that,” said Prof Ann John, leading author of the study. Photograph: Getty Images
Worryingly, these antidepressants were also prescribed to children showing no symptoms of depression but suffering from other afflictions such as anxiety and pain.
“Drugs are being prescribed more, there’s no doubt about that,” said Prof Ann John, leading author of the study and a qualified GP. The results were presented yesterday at the British Festival of Science.
The study followed data from 358,000 patients between six and 18 years old, routinely collected at their GP visits in Wales from 2003 to 2013.
Results showed antidepressant prescribing to children rose by 28 per cent over the study period, especially to adolescents. Prescriptions were three times more likely to be given to girls than boys, and twice more likely to be given to children living in most deprived areas.
Depression diagnosesOver the same period, new depression diagnoses declined by 28 per cent, while records of depression symptoms more than doubled. Prof John believes that this is due to GPs’ reluctance to give a definite diagnosis of depression to children. She calls this phenomenon “cautious labelling”.
More than half of the children showed symptoms of depression, while other children were given them after presenting with symptoms of anxiety and pain. A small percentage also received the drugs for other disorders such as enuresis, ADHD and autism.
“It may be that we’re overprescribing and over-treating,” Prof John said.
However, she believes the results could also reflect an increase in awareness of depression and the importance of treating it. “This could be an indication of better treatment; people could be getting what they need.”
However, the increase in drug prescription could also be a result of limited access to alternative approaches such as psychological therapies. “Because access [to psychological therapies] can take a few months and you want to do something, you may prescribe a bit too soon,” she said.
Vanesa Martinez is on placement at The Irish Times under the BSA/SFI media fellowship programme