Antidepressant prescriptions among children skyrocketed during the pandemic, research has shown.

Girls were largely responsible for the increase, with the rate in young women aged 12-17 shooting up 130 percent faster after March 2020 compared to pre-pandemic.

Being cut off from friends due to lockdowns and school closures, health anxiety and uncertainty about the future all contributed to poor mental health during the outbreak of Covid.

‘Multiple studies suggest that rates of anxiety and depression among female adolescents increased during the pandemic,’ said lead author Dr Kao Chua, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan Children’s Hospital.

‘These studies, coupled with our findings, suggest the pandemic exacerbated a pre-existing mental health crisis in this group.’

Monthly antidepressant dispensing rate among US adolescents and young adults aged 12 to 25 years, 2016 to 2022. The vertical line represents March 2020, the beginning of the Covid outbreak in America. The diagonal dashed line represents the trend that would have occurred if pre-March 2020 trends had continued

Monthly antidepressant dispensing rate among US adolescents and young adults aged 12 to 25 years, 2016 to 2022. The vertical line represents March 2020, the beginning of the Covid outbreak in America. The diagonal dashed line represents the trend that would have occurred if pre-March 2020 trends had continued

Girls were largely responsible for the increase, with the rate in young women aged 12-17 shooting up 130 percent faster after March 2020 compared to pre-pandemic

Girls were largely responsible for the increase, with the rate in young women aged 12-17 shooting up 130 percent faster after March 2020 compared to pre-pandemic

Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed data from a national database containing 92 percent of prescriptions dispensed in American pharmacies.

They looked at antidepressant medications given to Americans aged 12 to 25 between 2016 and 2020.

Researchers determined the monthly antidepressant dispensing rate, defined as the number of individuals every month with at least one dispensed antidepressant prescription per 100,000 people.

They found that between January 2016 and December 2022, the monthly antidepressant dispensing rate rose 66 percent.

Before March 2020, this rate increased by 17 percent per month.

Post-March 2020, antidepressant dispensing to young adults overall rose 64 percent faster than before. 

After March 2020, the antidepressant dispensing rate increased 130 percent faster among female adolescents ages 12-17 years and 60 percent faster among female young adults ages 18-25 years.

By contrast, the antidepressant dispensing rate among young male adults did not change significantly after March 2020.

The rate even declined in male adolescents aged 12 to 17, which Dr Chua found surprising.

‘It’s hard to believe this decline reflects improved mental health,’ he said.

A more likely explanation is that young men skipped physicals and other healthcare visits during the pandemic, reducing opportunities to diagnose and treat anxiety and depression, he believes.

The move away from in-person learning, he noted, may have also lessened chances for teachers and other school staff to detect mental health problems in male adolescents.

Dr Chua said the overall rise in antidepressant dispensing to young adults may not only be related to worsened mental health. 

Long waitlists for psychotherapy, for instance, may have also played a part. 

‘In my primary care clinic, I often heard from patients and families that they were facing six to nine month wait lists for therapy during the pandemic. 

‘In those situations, it didn’t make sense to withhold antidepressants and recommend a therapy-only approach,’ Dr Chua said.

The researchers said the increase in mental health medications probably reflects a greater need for antidepressants, given that depression and anxiety rates increased in young adults during the pandemic.

The shift towards telehealth during Covid may have also increased access to doctors who could prescribe antidepressants, they said.

The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

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