National lockdowns could have contributed to a rise in antidepressant prescriptions among children, figures suggest.
Data obtained by The Pharmaceutical Journal suggests increasing numbers of young people were prescribed antidepressants during the pandemic.
And there were particular peaks linked to lockdowns, it suggested.
It comes after NHS England said that young people had been “hit hard” by the Covid-19 crisis as it announced a £40 million funding boost on Tuesday.
The money will be used for a number of schemes including action to prevent children being shipped miles away when a mental health hospital bed is not available in their area.
It will also help enhance community care to try to prevent hospital admissions and bolster eating disorder services.
The Pharmaceutical Journal, which obtained prescriptions data from the NHS Business Services Authority, show a steady increase over the past five years in the number of unique patients in England aged 0-17 years old prescribed antidepressants.
In April 2015, 19,739 under 17s were prescribed antidepressants in England. This rose to 24,957 in April 2020.
The data also show a month by month breakdown in prescriptions given out by GPs and particular peaks were highlighted around periods of national lockdowns.
In March 2020, when the first UK lockdown began, the number of patients prescribed antidepressants reached a peak, with 17,902 girls and 9,855 boys prescribed antidepressants.
This figure subsided in subsequent months and in August, 14,977 girls were prescribed antidepressants as were 8,420 boys.
But after the second national lockdown in November, prescriptions rose again in December with almost 27,000 children getting a prescription for antidepressants – 17,311 girls and 9,500 boys.
This rise continued in January 2021 when the third lockdown was announced and started to subside in February.
Commenting on the figures, Beryl Navti, an advanced mental health pharmacist at North East London NHS Foundation Trust, told The Pharmaceutical Journal: “These periods correspond approximately to the first, second and third lockdown periods and the reasons are wide ranging.
“Antidepressants are prescribed for both depression and anxiety disorders and if we are saying that levels of anxiety increased amongst some young people during these periods, it makes sense that there would have been a corresponding increase in prescribed medication.”
Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, told the publication: “Access to appropriate, alternative therapies in the community, that many younger patients with mental health conditions find beneficial, is patchy across the country. This needs to be addressed urgently to ensure younger patients can access these treatments quickly, particularly in view of the increased demand for these services due to the pandemic.”
Nick Harrop, head of external affairs at the children and young person’s mental health charity, YoungMinds, added: “We know that some young people have dealt with multiple pressures, especially those who have been bereaved or experienced other trauma during this time. Young people who are already experiencing inequalities have often been disproportionately affected.”
He said that, while antidepressants can play a role in supporting some young people’s mental health, it was “crucial” that they are never seen as a substitute for fast access to talking therapies.
“As we emerge from the pandemic, the Government should invest in a national network of early support hubs across the country, so that any young person who needs help can get it as soon as they start to struggle.”
It comes after MPs heard that MPs heard that about 40% of children and young people with mental health issues were accessing services.
On Tuesday, mental health minister Nadine Dorries told the Health and Social Care Committee: “It’s been a difficult year for everybody, and it’s particularly been a difficult year for children and people who’ve not been in school, who’ve had their routines disrupted, who’ve been separated from their friends, from their social life, from the normal everyday that keeps children and young people happy.
“We did see, particularly early on in lockdown, children and young people reporting low mood, anxiety, poor mental health and I want to talk about that terminology.
“Actually, those young people have been incredibly resilient and we have seen young people who said, you know, on week one, ‘I feel apprehensive, I feel anxious and worried and fearful’, who their own resilience brought them through to the other side.
“So, rather than labelling a generation as a generation experiencing and suffering from mental health issues, I think we really need to acknowledge that we have a very strong, resilient generation that we should be incredibly proud of, who are coming through the lockdown, and some of the main problems we’ve seen when they’ve gone back into school, when they’ve come out of lockdown, it’s been a readjustment.”
Ms Dorries added that some people “surprisingly enjoyed lockdown with their children for a year, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom.”