ADHD News & Research

Some Psychiatric Medications May Be Insufficiently Prescribed to U.S. Children, Study Says

The steady increase in diagnoses for psychiatric conditions among U.S. children has sparked some worry that psychiatric medicines may be prescribed more readily and more often than necessary. However, a new study concludes that the opposite may be true.

February 16, 2018

Diagnosis rates for ADHD, depression, and other childhood psychiatric disorders have dramatically increased in the United States since the 1990s. At the same time, a new study concludes, prescription rates for certain psychiatric medications may not be keeping pace with patients’ growing needs.

Using data from the IMS LifeLink LRx National Longitudinal Prescription database, researchers examined the diagnosis rates for depression, ADHD, and anxiety, as well as psychiatric medication use for more than 6 million young people between the ages of 3 and 24.

The researchers found that prescription patterns across age groups matched up with each psychiatric disorder’s expected timeline. For example, antidepressant use increased as the subjects aged, reflecting depression’s later age of onset. However, the rate of filled prescriptions for antidepressants and stimulants was significantly lower than expected given the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the U.S. — indicating to the researchers that fears of “overprescription” may be overblown.

“Stimulants and antidepressant medications for children and adolescents do not appear to be prescribed at rates higher than the known (diagnosis) rates for the psychiatric conditions they are designed to treat,” said lead author Ryan Sultan, M.D., in a press release. “These findings are inconsistent with the perception that children and adolescents are being overprescribed.”

While further assessment is necessary — particularly since prescription rates change quickly and frequently — the data may point to some possible causes for this discrepancy, the researchers said. Most of the subjects taking antidepressants received their prescription through a psychiatrist, for instance — meaning that the nationwide shortage of psychiatrists may be at least partially responsible for the inconsistent prescription rates.

“Improving access to child psychiatrists through consultation services and collaborative care models may help address potential undertreatment — while also reducing the risk of prescribing medications before other treatments have been tried,” Sultan concluded.

The study1 was published January 29 in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.

1 Sultan, Ryan S., et al. “National Patterns of Commonly Prescribed Psychotropic Medications to Young People.” Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, 29 Jan. 2018, doi:10.1089/cap.2017.0077.