Australian doctors are prescribing more psychiatric drugs to children and adolescents, researchers from the University of Adelaide have found. This is despite the known risks of adverse effects in young people, and potential consequences for children’s developing brains and bodies.
The study, funded by the Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation, and published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, investigated the prescription of drugs used to treat psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorders, psychosis and sleep problems. Treatment guidelines for health professionals recommend non-drug therapies as first-line treatment for children and adolescents with these conditions.
Over half a million children aged 18 years and under were included in the study, which used MedicineInsight, a large general practice database run by the National Prescribing Service.
“Very few psychiatric drugs are approved for children or teenagers in Australia, and none for depression. However, we found that 1 in 10 teenagers 15 to 18 years were prescribed antidepressants in 2018,” Julie Klau, PhD candidate in the Critical and Ethical Mental Health research group at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute
Researchers found the prescriptions of drugs used to treat attention deficit disorders almost doubled between 2011 and 2018, while the prescription of antipsychotics increased 63% and the prescription of antidepressants increased 43%. The increases were steepest in 10 to 14 year-olds.
The lead author of the paper, Julie Klau, is a PhD candidate in the Critical and Ethical Mental Health research group at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute. Ms Klau said these increases are concerning.
“Very few psychiatric drugs are approved for children or teenagers in Australia, and none for depression. However, we found that 1 in 10 teenagers 15 to 18 years were prescribed antidepressants in 2018,” she said.
Professor Jon Jureidini, Research Leader of the Critical and Ethical Mental Health group, said: “Antipsychotics are associated with weight gain and metabolic problems, including diabetes. And antidepressants are associated with suicidal behaviour, especially in vulnerable teens. In America, the FDA – America’s equivalent of the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration- has included a strong ‘black box’ warning about this risk on all antidepressants since 2004.”
Researchers also found that prescriptions of melatonin (a drug used to treat sleep problems) skyrocketed, increasing by 600% from 2011 to 2018.
“With melatonin, although many consider it innocuous, it is a hormone, and there is limited evidence for long-term safety,” said Professor Jureidini.
Moreover, children in more disadvantaged areas were up to 3 times more likely than those in more advantaged areas to receive psychiatric drugs. According to the authors of the study, there is an urgent need to investigate why the prescription of these medications is increasing, and why, in particular, disadvantaged children are more likely to be treated with these drugs.