Antidepressants given to children as young as six
Experts fear that doctors may be overprescribing NHS England data shows 12% rise over 14 months
Tens of thousands of young people in England, including children as young as six, are being prescribed antidepressants.
The numbers have prompted concern that doctors may be overprescribing strong drugs because of stretched and underfunded mental health services.
Data obtained by the Guardian showed 166,510 patients under 18, including 10,595 aged between seven and 12 and 537 aged six years or younger, were given medication typically used to treat depression and anxiety between April 2015 and June 2016. The NHS England figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, also show a 12% rise in the numbers taking the drugs in that time.
Dr Marc Bush, the senior policy adviser at the charity Young Minds, said the statistics were “substantial” and underlined the number of young people who were experiencing mental health problems. “Anti-depressants have a role to play but are not the whole solution,” he said.
Bush added that he felt “extreme worry” at the prospect of an under sixyear-old receiving an antidepressant. “It feels quite difficult to comprehend given what we know about the impact of pharmacology on people’s development.”
Experts fear that some children and young people are being prescribed the drugs because they face such long waits for psychological therapy on the NHS.
Dr Antonis Kousoulis, a clinician and assistant director at another charity, the Mental Health Foundation, said the high prescription numbers showed a failure to provide age-appropriate psychological treatments. “GPs overprescribe antidepressants often because of the long waiting lists for specialist services.”
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) guidance says antidepressants should be given only to teenagers and children with “moderate or severe depression” when psychological therapy has failed. It also advises they should be taken alongside other support, such as counselling. Fluoxetine, sold under the name Prozac, is the only drug recommended for children, but other drugs can be used as second line treatments.
According to Nice, fluoxetine should be “cautiously considered” for those aged five to 11. However, evidence for its effectiveness in this age group “is not established”, it says.
David Taylor, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society spokesperson on mental health, said: “Antidepressants are only used in children in circumstances where there is clear support from robust clinical trials.”
A spokesperson from NHS England said: “While there are excellent psychological treatments for children and young people, in some cases it is medically appropriate to offer medication.”
Experts noted that the figures could include children under 12 being treated for other problems. Tricyclic antidepressants, for example, are sometimes used to treat chronic pain and bedwetting. Some anti-depressants can also be prescribed for managing epileptic fits.