Antidepressant Prescriptions for Teens Increased During Pandemic, Study Says

Rates of young people taking antidepressants have long been on the rise, but a new study suggests that antidepressant dispensing to adolescents and young adults shot up at the start of the pandemic — increasing 64% faster after March 2020.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Michigan and published in Pediatrics Monday, found that between January 2016 and December 2022, the monthly antidepressant dispensing rate increased 66.3%. Before March 2020, this rate was already increasing, but only by 17% per month. Overall, the monthly antidepressant dispensing rate increased 63.5% faster from March 2020 onwards compared to pre-pandemic rates.

This increase was driven by female adolescents, the study shows, pointing to a mental health crisis that appears to be particularly dire for young girls.

“Multiple studies suggest that rates of anxiety and depression among female adolescents increased during the pandemic,” said lead author Kao Ping Chua, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatrician and researcher at the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center, in a new release. “These studies, coupled with our findings, suggest the pandemic exacerbated a pre-existing mental health crisis in this group.”

By analyzing data from the IQVIA Longitudinal Prescription Database, which included info on 92.5% to 94.4% of antidepressant prescriptions dispensed in U.S. retail pharmacies from 2016 through 2022, researchers found that the rate of antidepressant dispensing increased 130% faster among female adolescents ages 12-17 years and 60% faster among young adult females ages 18-25 years post-March 2020.

In contrast, the beginning of the pandemic was associated with a slight decrease in antidepressant dispensing to males aged 12 to 17 and was not associated with any change among males aged 18 to 25.

The study authors said it’s unlikely that this change is due to mental health improvements among male adolescents during the pandemic, however, considering data has revealed that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts in male adolescents were higher in early 2021 compared with early 2019.

Research has also revealed that the proportion of male high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased between 2019 and 2021.

A more plausible explanation, the authors wrote, is that male adolescents received care for mental health symptoms less often after the outbreak despite no decrease in the frequency of these symptoms.

The study did not explore the reasons behind the sharp overall increase in antidepressant prescriptions given to teens during the pandemic, but the authors suspect that while it may partly reflect a greater need for antidepressants, given evidence that the prevalence of depression and anxiety increased among adolescents and young adults after the outbreak, changes in access and treatment patterns may also have played a role.

“For example, for patients facing long waitlists for psychotherapy after the outbreak, initiating or continuing antidepressant therapy may have been more practical than relying on a therapy-only approach,” the authors wrote. “Additionally, the shift toward telehealth for mental health care delivery may have increased access to clinicians who could prescribe antidepressants, at least among individuals without barriers to telehealth use.”

The authors said future research should investigate which interventions can best promote the mental health of adolescents and young adults in an effort to mitigate the harmful implications of poor mental health both in the short term and long term.

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