15th April 2017
Almost 5000 WA children under 16 years old are being prescribed antidepressants, which doctors argue reflects the rates of mental health and behavioural issues.
Figures from the Department of Human Services show 4922 children aged two to 16 were supplied with antidepressants in 2015, including 178 under seven years old and 910 aged seven to 11.
Nationally, 49,000 children were prescribed the drugs, while across all ages 2.8 million Australians were on antidepressants.
It comes only weeks after a study by primary care provider 360 Health and Community found 31 per cent of GP referrals for depression help in Perth were for patients aged 10 to 19.
Three per cent, or more than 200 referrals, were for children under 10.
In December, the Therapeutic Goods Administration reiterated a warning to doctors that the use of antidepressants had been linked to a small increased risk of suicidal thinking in some children and adolescents.
The main risk was associated with the newer generation of antidepressants known as serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.
Nick Kowalenko from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry, said the figures for antidepressant use in children did not seem out of order.
He said low doses of older-type antidepressants were sometimes prescribed to very young children for issues such as persistent bedwetting, to change their sleep cycle.
“I’m guessing that the rationale behind the 178 kids aged two to six on antidepressants in WA is about bedwetting rather than treating depression,” Dr Kowalenko said.
He said SSRI drugs were used to treat depression but also childhood anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders. The risks and benefits of antidepressants were always weighed up, including the risk of a child missing a lot of school if they were not treated.
Dr Kowalenko said the 2015 Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing had found that about 14 per cent of four to 17-year-olds — or 600,000 children — had been assessed as having mental disorders.
About 40 per cent of them had moderate or severe conditions such as major depressive and anxiety disorders.
“So when you look at those numbers, the prescribing rates don’t jump out as high, but the question to ask is if the right children, the most severely impaired, are being treated,” he said.