University research shows marked increase in mental health prescriptions for children

Antidepressant prescriptions for children in one part of Scotland have increased by almost 60% in six years, research has found.

Experts from the University of Aberdeen compared mental health prescriptions issued in the NHS Grampian region over the period 2015 to 2021.

Overall prescriptions increased by 56%, the research found.

That included a 59% increase in antidepressant prescribing to children, with a 45% rise in prescriptions for ADHD.

There was also a rise of just over a third (35%) in drugs prescribed to treat psychoses and related disorders.

The study, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, found that overall boys were more likely than girls to receive a prescription to help with mental health problems, with those living in poverty also given more prescriptions than their more affluent counterparts.

According to the research, boys received 73% of all mental health prescriptions and more prescriptions than girls in primary school, mostly to treat ADHD.

Girls, meanwhile, had more prescriptions issued during secondary school, with mostly antidepressants being given.

Dr William Ball, a research fellow in the networked data Lab at the university, explained: “One in six children in the United Kingdom is estimated to have a mental health condition, and many do not receive support or treatment. The pandemic appears to have exacerbated this issue.

“The large increase in mental health prescribing and changes in referrals to specialist outpatient care aligns with emerging evidence of increasing poor mental health, particularly since the start of the pandemic.

“Persistent and avoidable inequities in mental health prescribing and referrals require urgent action.”

The team at the university’s networked data lab, in collaboration with the Health Foundation, studied NHS Grampian medical records on children from 2015 to 2021.

They reported a total of 178,657 mental health prescriptions and 21,874 referrals to specialist outpatient care for 18,732 children over that period.

Dr Jessica Butler, who leads the networked data lab project in Grampian, said: “Children’s medical records are spread across the NHS system so it can be tricky to get a clear sense of mental health needs.

“Our goal was to combine records from GP care all the way up to support in hospitals to understand how children are doing after the pandemic.

“The results let us see that there is a big gap – GPs are giving many more mental health prescriptions, but there is a limit to who can be seen by hospital specialists.

“This research shows that how we close that gap, and improve mental health, will be different for different children. Boys and girls may need different care, as may children who are living in poverty.

“Ideally, we (can) use this research to help prevent poor mental health before children need specialist services.”

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