Unprecedented rise in children being prescribed anti-depressants

9 March 2016

The World Health Organisation has raised concerns about an unprecedented rise in the number of children being prescribed anti-depressants in UK. We now know that between 2005 and 2012, there was 54% increase in prescriptions issued for the drugs.

This illustrates the need for a more comprehensive approach to tackling the rising number of  young people developing and living with mental health problems. Whilst there is a role for anti-depressants in treating depression, we need to be conscious of both side-effects and of medicalising mild to moderate experiences of depression.

The fact that so many young people are developing mental health problems should make the nation sit up and take notice. The issue was highlighted just this weekend by a survey of school leaders. In total, 55% of 338 school leaders reported a large rise in pupils with anxiety and stress and almost 65% said they struggled to get mental health services for pupils. This indicates that GPs are finding it difficult to provide many children and young people with access to appropriate support.

We know that there are serious gaps in mental health care beyond the school gates, that’s why we need a more comprehensive approach to tackling mental ill health among young people. We need to consider a range of treatments and perhaps most critically, focus on early intervention and prevention. Evidence shows that most mental health problems begin in childhood. Tackling emerging mental health problems and signs of distress early is crucial. It has the potential to change the course of a child’s life, from improved life outcomes including educational attainment, employment opportunities and physical health to reductions in the levels of substance misuse, self-harm and suicide.

Schools are uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of the prevention revolution, building resilience to mental health problems by equipping students with the knowledge essential to supporting their mental and emotional wellbeing. At the Mental Health Foundation, we have been piloting an ambitious project which looks at how this can be done through education and peer support. By identifying innovative approaches and proving their effectiveness, we can build a solid evidence base, laying the foundations for them to be rolled out-more widely.

It is also crucial that we identify and address the causes of mental ill health. In 2014, children’s mental health charity YoungMinds found that although 68% of young people feel ‘very stressed’ about not doing well in their exams, 42% wouldn’t talk to anyone if the stress or pressure became too much for them. We have a duty of care to these children and need to be asking serious questions about the pressures children and young people are facing.

Links:

BBC Report: Anti-depressants: WHO concern over use by children

BBC Report: Improve children's mental health care, head teachers urge

YoungMinds: Survey reveals teenagers facing constant onslaught of stress