More than a million prescriptions for antidepressants are written for teenagers in England each year, official figures suggest.
The number of drugs doled out to 13 to 19-year-olds rose by a quarter between 2016 and 2020, latest NHS data shows.
It includes prescriptions up to the end of 2020, following a year of national Covid lockdowns and school and university closures.
An increasing amount of evidence is beginning to accrue showing that virus restrictions took a heavy toll on young people’s mental health.
The NHS data — obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request — also show antidepressants use rose sharply among adults in their 20s.
Mental health and children’s charities told MailOnline the data was an ‘alarming sign’ of a mental health crisis in Britain.
They warned some young people may have been given drugs by GPs because they can’t get counselling due to pandemic backlogs.
Prescriptions for antidepressants among teens have risen by a quarter in England in 2020 compared to 2016. The greatest growth was seen among 13 and 19-year-olds where prescription rates rose by about a third
Young adults, whoa re often leaving home for the first time and starting their careers also saw antidepressant prescription rates boom by about 40 per cent
The NHS data records prescriptions rather than individual patients, meaning someone could be recorded multiple times.
A total of 1.03million antidepressant prescriptions were made to people aged between 13-and-19-years in 2020, the latest available data.
This was a 26 per cent rise compared to the number of prescriptions in 2016 (822,717).
What to do if you’re a parent who needs help for their child
If your child is struggling and needs some help, you may be feeling really worried and unsure where to start. Remember that you and your child are not alone. There are services, professionals and organisations that can help you, and information about how to access them.
Trying to find the right help for your child and finding your way around different services can be really tiring at times. Remember to look after yourself as you go – and to remind yourself that you’re doing your best and it’s not always easy.
QUICK TIPS FOR ACCESSING HELP
Your local GP can discuss concerns about your child’s mental health, and could refer them to other services, such as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).
You could access counselling through CAMHS and other NHS services.
Speaking to professionals can sometimes feel daunting, and it might feel difficult to find the right words to explain what’s going on or what help you think your child needs.
Parents in similar situations have found that the tips below can help.
1. Make a note of your concerns
Before speaking to a professional, make a note of your concerns and the times you have noticed particularly worrying behaviours or feelings. You can do this really simply by making a list on your phone. You can then take this with you to appointments to give the professional a clear sense of your child’s situation, and to support any requests for referrals.
2. Explore local services
If you’re on a waiting list for help, explore whether there are services available locally that you might be able to access in the meantime. Your child might also be able to get more immediate online support from organisations like The Mix and Kooth. You can find other online services and helplines at the bottom of this page.
3. Try talking to other parents
As you find your way around local services, try talking to other parents who have been through this, or speak to any friends or family who might be able to advise you about where to get started. For example, if you know anyone who works in mental health support, they might have a good idea about what’s available locally.
4. Follow up after the appointment
Where possible, follow up by email after appointments – for example with teachers or other staff at your child’s school – to confirm what’s been agreed. Then check in a week or two later to find out what’s happened. This is a good way to keep things moving.
The greatest rise was among the youngest and oldest teens, with rates in 13-year-olds and 19-year-olds up by about third — 33 per cent and 34 per cent respectively.
Antidepressant prescriptions have also soared by 39 per cent in people in their 20s over the same time period.
A total of 7.1million antidepressant prescriptions to this group were made in 2020, a rise of 2million compared to 2016.
Olly Parker, head of external affairs at mental health charity Young Minds, called the rise ‘alarming’.
‘These figures are yet another alarming sign of the crisis in mental health services for young people,’ he said.
‘Record numbers are trying to access support and very often find the options are limited.’
There was an overall rise of 12 per cent among all age groups between 2016 and 2020, the data shows.
Earlier this year, it was revealed a record 420,000 under-18s were either undergoing mental health treatment or waiting to start in February, a 54 per cent rise compared to the same time in 2020, before the pandemic.
Mr Parker said the demands of mental health services may have left many family doctors feeling they have no option but to prescribe drugs to help young people in crisis.
‘Medication can play an important role in helping a young person manage their mental health but should never be a substitute for talking therapies such as counselling,’ he said.
‘Long waiting times and high thresholds for treatment may mean that GPs feel under pressure to prescribe medication, but it shouldn’t be used as a sticking plaster for poor access to other forms of support.’
Laurence Guinness, chief executive of The Childhood Trust, a charity representing children from poorer families, was also concerned by the data.
‘The rise in prescription medications to treat adolescent mental health is a worrying trend, he said.
‘The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services system cannot cope with referrals and too many children are left without any alternative than to seek help from their GP who is often limited to prescribing medication.’
Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, said young people’s mental health had suffered greatly in the pandemic.
‘We know this generation has been particularly affected by the pandemic, who have grappled with educational disruption, isolation and loneliness and now face uncertainty about jobs and income,’ he said.
He also said that more people taking antidepressants could be a potential positive, as it implied people were seeking help for their mental health problems rather than suffering in silence.
However, Mr Buckley added the trend of rising in prescriptions in under-18s was concerning.
‘Antidepressants can be effective, but they can cause unpleasant side effects and are not usually recommended for those under the age of 18, or for the initial treatment of mild depression,’ he said.
‘This rise in antidepressant usage reflects the concerning state of young people’s wellbeing across the country and the need to invest in early mental health support before problems become more expensive and difficult to treat.’
He called for Government to invest more in children’s mental health service in England.
Social media use, university debt and the prospect of never being able to afford their own home have all been attributed as being behind a rise in mental health issues among young people.
Chris Martin, chief executive of The Mix, a charity for under 25s, said: ‘We have seen a worrying spike in young people talking about their use of anti-depressants.
‘Our own research with young people revealed that anti-depressants were the second most used drug amongst 16-25 year-olds and that one in 10 young people have also misused anti-depressants in the past year.’
Mr Martin also attributed the rise to overstretched mental health services.
‘Our concern is that this is strongly connected to the lack of time offered to young people seeking mental health support from overstretched health services,’ he said.
‘While anti-depressants can be right for some, they should not always be the first option for treatment when a young person might benefit more from access to talking therapies or advice on sleep, exercise, and diet.’
Charities have warned that some young people are being given antidepressants by GPs as they can’t get other treatments like therapy from overstretched health services
There has been a record growth in the number of children and young listed as having an ‘open referral’ with NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in England, with 420,314 as of February
There are many antidepressants of different types available to be prescribed on the NHS, the most famous being Prozac with other examples being Zispin, Molipaxin, and Cipramil.
While most famous for being used to treat depression they can also be used to treat other mental health conditions like anxiety, crippling phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, bulimia and post-traumatic-stress disorder.
Antidepressants have a plethora of potential of side effects, ranging from relatively minor, like headaches, diarrhoea or nausea to the more serious serotonin syndrome, where the body produces too much of the mood regulating chemical.
Serotonin syndrome, while uncommon, can lead to serious health problems like fits and an irregular heartbeat
Responding to the data, Professor Subodh Dave, dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the NHS prescription data needed to be interpreted cautiously as antidepressants had wider clinical use.
‘These figures need to be interpreted carefully as antidepressants can be prescribed to young people for a range of health conditions, including physical ones,’ he said.
Some antidepressants do have other applications outside of mental health such as helping to alleviate chronic pain conditions such as ongoing neck and back pain
One type of the medication, tricyclic antidepressants, is sometimes used to help stop bedwetting in children due to a side effect of relaxing the muscles of the bladder, helping to increase urine capacity, and reducing the urge to urinate.