NHS figures reveal that the number of antidepressant prescriptions for under-18s has reached a record high, with experts attributing this to the impact of the pandemic.
In just 12 months, doctors have issued over one million antidepressant prescriptions to teenagers, marking a new record high.
According to the latest NHS data, the number of children aged 13 to 19 using antidepressants increased by 6,000 in 2022 to reach 173,000.
Over the course of a year, the number of GP prescriptions for this age group reached 1,005,972.
Leading mental health experts state that these figures provide further evidence of a significant decline in the mental health of young people since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The statistics reveal that one in 300 children aged 13 have been prescribed antidepressants, while by the age of 19, one in ten are taking them.
The mental health of young people has been significantly impacted by the pandemic.
A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that 47 percent of parents reported a decline in their child’s social and emotional skills, while only one in six reported any improvement.
Another survey conducted by the IFS in collaboration with UCL Institute of Education discovered that parents of girls and younger children, as well as those who were furloughed, were more likely to notice worsening difficulties in their children.
When breaking down the age groups, 52 percent of children aged four to seven were reported to have experienced a deterioration in their socio-emotional skills, compared to 42 percent in the 12 to 15 years bracket.
The report also emphasized better outcomes in the socio-emotional skills of “children whose parents had stable labor market experiences throughout the pandemic” compared to those whose families experienced more economic instability.
In August, children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza expressed concern over NHS figures showing a “large and recent increase” in the number of children and young people admitted to the hospital for eating disorders.
The same NHS figures reveal that only 78 percent of urgent cases and 81 percent of non-urgent cases were seen within the 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.
Doctors do not typically recommend prescribing antidepressants to individuals under the age of 18 due to the association with increased suicidal ideation and self-harm.
However, NHS guidance states that they may be prescribed in cases of moderate to severe depression, alongside talking therapies and under the supervision of a psychiatrist.
Marjorie Wallace, founder and chief executive of mental health charity SANE, told the Telegraph that children should only be given antidepressants “as a last resort” but that GPs are “left with no choice” because child and adolescent mental health services are overwhelmed.
She emphasized the need for more specialist units, improved training for mental health staff, and swift responses to teenagers and their families seeking help.
More than 432,500 individuals under the age of 18 were referred to children and young people’s mental health services in the six months up to February 2023, which is more than double the number from the same period pre-pandemic, or three years earlier.
Antidepressants are prescribed for various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Additionally, doctors may prescribe them off-label to address issues like insomnia, pain, or migraines.