GPs Hand Out Over 1 Million Antidepressant Prescriptions to Teens in a Year

NHS figures reveal prescriptions for antidepressant drugs to under-18s has hit a record high, with experts blaming the impact of the pandemic.
GPs Hand Out Over 1 Million Antidepressant Prescriptions to Teens in a Year
Kids are going to need a lot of parental support and guidance to successfully process the last two years events. (fizkes/Shutterstock)
Patricia Devlin

Doctors have handed out over one million antidepressant prescriptions to teenagers in just 12 months—a new record high.

According to the latest NHS data, the number of children aged 13 to 19 using antidepressants rose by 6,000 in 2022, to 173,000.

It saw the number of GP prescriptions for drugs to those in the age group over the course of a year reach 1,005,972

Leading mental health experts say the figures show “further evidence of a significant decline in the mental health of young people” since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statistics reveal that one in 300 children aged 13 had been prescribed an antidepressant, but by the age of 19, one in ten were taking them.

Speaking to the Telegraph on Wednesday about the record high prescription figures, Dr. Susie Davies, founder of Parents Against Phone Addiction in Young Adolescents said the pandemic “appears to have exacerbated an already strong, downward trend” in well-being which is linked to the increased popularity of smartphones and social media.

Young people’s mental health was among the hardest hit during the pandemic.

Data from the NHS showed that one in ten of 17 to 19-year-olds had a “probable mental disorder” before the pandemic, but this rose sharply to one in four past year.

Pandemic Pressures

A new report published last month revealed how nearly half of parents have reported increased “socio-emotional difficulties” in their children after lockdown.

According to a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), 47 percent of parents reported that their child’s social and emotional skills had worsened, while just one in six reported any noticeable improvement.

A previous survey, run by the IFS in conjunction with UCL Institute of Education, also found that parents of girls and younger children, alongside those who were furloughed, were more likely to report worsening difficulties in their children.

Examining the breakdown of age groups, 52 percent of children in the four to seven-year-old bracket were reported to have deteriorated in their socio-emotional skills. In the 12 to 15 years bracket, the number was 42 percent.

The report also highlighted better outcomes in the socio-emotional skills of, “children whose parents had stable labour market experiences throughout the pandemic,” when compared with, “the skills of children whose families faced more economic instability.”

In August, children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza expressed concern at NHS figures showing a “large and recent increase” in the number of children and young people admitted to hospital for eating disorders.

The same NHS figures show that just 78 percent of urgent cases and 81 percent of non-urgent cases were seen within target time frames of one week and four weeks, respectively.

This is significantly lower than the 95 percent target set over the past couple of years.

Undated image of a teenager using her mobile phone. (Eightshot Images/Getty Images)
Undated image of a teenager using her mobile phone. (Eightshot Images/Getty Images)

Last Resort

Doctors are not recommended to prescribe antidepressants to under-18s owing to links with an increase in suicidal ideation and self-harm.

However, NHS guidance says they can be prescribed in cases of moderate to severe depression alongside talking therapies and under psychiatrist supervision.

Speaking to the Telegraph, Marjorie Wallace, founder and chief executive of mental health charity SANE, said children should only be given antidepressants “as a last resort,” but GPs were “left with no choice because child and adolescent mental health services are overwhelmed”.

“We urgently need more specialist units, better training for mental health staff and early response to cries for help from teenagers and their families,” she told the newspaper.

More than 432,500 under-18s were referred to children and young people’s mental health services in the six months up to February 2023, more than double the same period pre-pandemic, or three years earlier.

Antidepressants are prescribed for a range of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Sometimes, doctors can prescribe them off-label to help with issues like insomnia, pain or migraines.