The World Health Organization is finally raising concerns about antidepressants prescribed to children
by: J. D. Heyes
There is such a dramatic increase in the prescribing of antidepressants for children in the West, that the World Health Organization (WHO) is taking a closer look – and is becoming concerned.
As reported by the BBC, the increases are sizable: 60 percent in Denmark; 49 percent in Germany; 26 percent in the United States; and 17 percent in the Netherlands, between 2005 and 2012, a new study shows.
After a warning was issued about the drugs in 2004, based on concerns that some of them were leading to suicidal behavior, usage fell. But as new research indicates, the numbers are back up – way up, in fact.
WHO director of mental health, Dr. Shekhar Saxena, said that the new study, published in the European Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, raised some serious questions.
"Anti-depressant use amongst young people is and has been a matter of concern because of two reasons," he told the BBC.
"One, are more people being prescribed anti-depressants without sufficient reason? And second, can anti-depressants do any major harm?"
'You almost feel forgotten about'
In addition to those concerns, WHO officials are also anxious about the rising prevalence of off-label prescriptions, where kids are given drugs that are not licensed or approved for use by anyone under 18.
"These are medicines which have not been tried amongst young people, have no justification for being used widely in young people," Saxena said. "There are legal regulations and professional guidelines and off-label use of drugs many times crosses both of them. That's something the World Health Organization is very concerned about."
The traditional medical community recognizes antidepressants as being one treatment for depression in children, but guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) state that they should not be given initially for symptoms of mild depression (though too often they are). And even in more serious cases, antidepressants are only to be used with additional psychological therapies.
Some adults who were given antidepressants as children say that they had a negative overall effect on them. One example is George Watkins, 20. The BBC reported that he was prescribed antidepressants at age 15, and no other forms of treatment were made available to him.
"My doctor put me on the anti-depressants really after a five-minute consultation," he said. "I wasn't offered counselling or anything like that, it was straight in."
Five years later, he is still taking antidepressants, despite concerns about how they are impacting him.
"I was terrified; I still am terrified of medication, because of how bad it has made me feel," he said. "You almost feel forgotten about."
'Huge waiting list' for psychiatric services
The English government's mental health champion, Natasha Devon, told the news service that there is a genuine problem with providing access for young people to "talking therapies."
"The problem is, of course, is that there is a huge waiting list," she said. (Britain has socialized medicine via its National Health Service, or NHS.) "It's eight weeks if you're lucky, it's far more likely to run into months, so during that interim period all you have are these anti-depressants."
For the record, wait times in Canada, another government-run, single-payer system, are also substantial.
Part of Devon's work is to visit schools in the country. She says that she's become aware of the rising number of kids who have been prescribed antidepressants. She also says that she is concerned that "they can only ever treat the symptoms, they don't get to the root cause of the issue."
The BBC noted further that Prof. Mark Baker, director of clinical practice at NICE, a health watchdog group, understands that assessing child and adolescent mental health services is increasingly challenging.
"This may have led to more severe cases of depression in young people being managed in primary care for longer," he said.
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