There has been a rise in reported mental health problems among young people in recent years – a worrying trend that has been attributed to various inescapable elements of modern life, from smartphones and social media to exam stress. So while it’s perhaps unsurprising that antidepressant use has skyrocketed among this age group, according to new data, the extent of the rise might shock you.
The number of children under 13 prescribed antidepressants last year in Scotland alone was four times greater than just seven years ago – 252 children compared with 57 in 2009/10, reported the BBC. Among all children under 18, the figure doubled from 2,748 to 5,572.
The revelation backs up the even more shocking data released by NHS England in June, which showed that antidepressants are also on the rise among under-18s in England, including among children as young as six. Between April 2015 and June 2016, 166,510 under-18s – including 10,595 7-to-12-year-olds and 537 aged six or younger – received medication typically used to treat depression and anxiety. This was a 12% increase on the previous year. At the same time, child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are struggling to cope with demand because of government cuts.
According to guidelines from NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), which serves the NHS in England and Wales, children should only be prescribed antidepressants alongside psychological talking therapies, such as CBT.
When antidepressants are prescribed to under-18s, only fluoxetine, also known by the trade name Prozac, should be recommended. Fluoxetine "is the only antidepressant for which clinical trial evidence shows the benefits outweigh the risks" for under-18s, according to NICE.
However in reality, young people under 18 are being prescribed other drugs too, according to the data obtained by the BBC from NHS Scotland. Just 45% of them were prescribed fluoxetine last year, with 41% being given sertraline and 13% citalopram, which are favoured as second-line treatments if fluoxetine is "not tolerated", the BBC reported.
Ten teens, aged 13-17, were also given paroxetine by doctors, which flies in the face of NICE's recommendation that "paroxetine should not be used for the treatment of depression in children and young people". Despite this, the government insisted that doctors are handing out medication correctly, the BBC reported.
It's impossible to draw any conclusions from the data as to what the young people are being treated for, but Dr. Elaine Lockhart, chairman of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said: "Antidepressants are prescribed for a range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, OCD and even for migraines and pain in some cases." So while we can't know why prescriptions for antidepressants have increased among the next generation, it's clear more needs to be done to help them.