Study finds sharp increase in antidepressant dispensing among adolescents and young adults during COVID-19 pandemic

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Antidepressant dispensing to adolescents and young adults increased sharply after the COVID-19 pandemic began – particularly among females – a new study finds.

While a growing number of young people ages 12 to 25 were receiving antidepressants before the pandemic, the antidepressant dispensing rate rose nearly 64% faster after March 2020, according to Michigan Medicine led findings in Pediatrics.

Antidepressant dispensing to adolescents and young adults was already high and rising before March 2020. Our findings suggest these trends accelerated during the pandemic."

Kao Ping Chua, M.D., Ph.D., lead author, pediatrician and researcher at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center

Researchers analyzed data from a national database reporting 92% of prescriptions dispensed in U.S. pharmacies. They found that the increase in the antidepressant dispensing rate during the pandemic was driven by females. 

After March 2020, this rate increased 130% faster among female adolescents ages 12-17 years and 60% faster among female young adults ages 18-25 years. 

"Multiple studies suggest that rates of anxiety and depression among female adolescents increased during the pandemic," Chua said. "These studies, coupled with our findings, suggest the pandemic exacerbated a pre-existing mental health crisis in this group."

In contrast to females, the antidepressant dispensing rate changed little among male young adults after March 2020 and declined among male adolescents, which Chua found surprising.

"It's hard to believe this decline reflects improved mental health," he said.

He believes a more likely explanation is that male adolescents may have skipped physicals and other health care visits during the pandemic, decreasing opportunities to diagnose and treat anxiety and depression.

The transition away from in-person learning, he notes, may have also decreased opportunities for teachers and other school staff to detect mental health problems in male adolescents. 

Chua said the overall rise in antidepressant dispensing to adolescents and young adults may not only be related to worsened mental health. Long waitlists for psychotherapy, for example, may have also played a role.

"In my primary care clinic, I often heard from patients and families that they were facing 6-9 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," he said.

Further studies, Chua says, should identify which interventions can best promote the mental health of adolescents and young adults. 

Source:
Journal reference:

Chua, K-P., et al. (2024) Antidepressant Dispensing to US Adolescents and Young Adults: 2016–2022. Pediatrics. doi.org/10.1542/peds.2023-064245.

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