On Good Morning Britain in August of this year, there were some extraordinary claims made. The mental health charity STEM4 had published results of an online “survey” which appeared to suggest that as many as 37% of 12-18 year olds were taking / had been prescribed antidepressants.
This story was run by GMB in rather sensational fashion:
I, and other child psychiatrists raised immediate concerns about this data. I approached STEM4 to understand how this survey had been conducted, and found the explanations wanting. This was not credible research. NHS data shows that rates of prescribing of antidepressants in young people sits somewhere in the low single figures – perhaps 10x less common than was being suggested.
The problem here was that a single study (with no robust scientific planning that I could be shown) was being used as an eye catching news story, hugely distorting the realities of the clinical situation. It’s findings went against the evidence from a number of large and credible data sets.
I was pleased to liaise with BBC “More or Less” show, who looked into this in greater depth. Their findings are available in today’s excellent show, “debunking” the claims – please have a listen:
Why does this matter so much? Many young people are particularly vulnerable at present. We know the prevalence of all mental disorders in young people is on the rise. There is no doubt, for example, that rates of anxiety are increasing. However, it is essential that normal human experience is not pathologised. The pandemic has caused huge disruption and uncertainty. Many young people are feeling unsettled. This is compounded perhaps by the war in Ukraine, financial instability, and the climate crisis, to name just a few subjects which are at the fore of many young people’s minds.
A distressed teenager might read such a headline and think: “Am I ill, too?” or “Why is it that I can’t have medication, when others are?”. Parents may press GPs and CAMHS services to prescribe, even when the evidence for doing so is not there. The rates of private prescriptions of drugs like Fluoxetine might (ironically) rise as a result of this sensationalisation.
The key lessons here: 1) We need more research in the area of child and adolescent mental health 2) We need those advocating for young people to do so on the basis of sound evidence 3) We need journalists to exercise caution, and question the reliability of such claims.