Children on medication for depression has risen by almost 60% in the UK 

Children on medication for depression has risen by almost 60% in the UK
©shutterstock/Aleksandra Berzhets

Prescription of medication for depression in children is up by nearly 60%, according to a new study from the University of Aberdeen.  

The same study also found differences in mental healthcare according to the gender of children and the wealth of their families. Prescription of medication for depression in children has risen by 59%, and prescriptions to treat ADHD are up by 45%. Medicines prescribed to treat psychoses and disorders related to psychoses have increased by 35%.  

The researchers also discovered that boys were more likely than girls to receive medication for depression and those living in poverty were given more prescriptions than those more well-off.  

The full study has been published in the journal BMC Psychiatry. 

Mental health referrals for children had risen since the pandemic

The research team worked in collaboration with The Health Foundation at the University’s Networked Data Lab, studying the NHS Grampian medical records on children from 2015 to 2021. They reported 178,657 mental health prescriptions and 21,874 referrals to specialist outpatient care for 18,732 children during that period.   

According to their research, referrals to specialist outpatient children’s mental health services (CAMHS) have increased by 11% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the proportion of CAMHS referrals that were rejected or redirected to treatment elsewhere has also risen since 2020, from 17% to 30% of all referrals.   

The study researchers noticed consistent differences between the mental healthcare provided to boys and girls. These differences occurred in both drug prescriptions and referrals to mental health services. Boys received 73% of all mental health prescriptions and more prescriptions than girls in primary school, mostly to treat ADHD.  

Girls were subject to more prescriptions during secondary school, mostly for medication for depression. In ten-year-olds, 1,200 boys had a mental health prescription but only 300 girls did. In 17-year-olds, 1,800 girls had a prescription, but only 1,300 boys.  

During the pandemic, more girls were referred to mental health specialists than boys. Prior to the pandemic, boys and girls had equal numbers of referrals to specialist outpatient mental health services. Since 2020, referrals for girls have increased by 25% but decreased by 6% for boys.  

The researcher also observed differences in who was accepted for care at CAMHS. Originally, boys and girls were equally likely to be accepted, however in 2021, girls made up two-thirds of those accepted. 

Poorer children are more likely to need medication for depression

The team also discovered differences in mental healthcare associated with poverty. Children living in deprived areas were more likely to need mental health care. Compared to those living in wealthy neighbourhoods, children living in the most deprived areas had twice as many prescriptions for mental health medicine. Children in deprived areas also had twice the rate of referral to specialist mental health services and were referred at younger ages.  

“One in six children in the United Kingdom is estimated to have a mental health condition, and many do not receive support or treatment. The pandemic appears to have exacerbated this issue,” explained Dr William Ball, a Research Fellow in the Networked Data Lab at the University. 

“The large increase in mental health prescribing and changes in referrals to specialist outpatient care aligns with emerging evidence of increasing poor mental health, particularly since the start of the pandemic,” continued Dr Ball.  

“The analysis shows that to improve the mental health of children and young people urgent investigation is needed into the deterioration of young women’s mental health, the drivers of marked socioeconomic inequalities, and the rapid growth in prescribing across the UK,” added Charles Tallack, Director of Data Analytics at the Health Foundation 

Children and young people need support for their mental health more than ever, but gaps in data mean that we know too little about where services are most needed,” he concluded.   


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