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Teenage antidepressant use in New Zealand

November 12, 2019

Use of antidepressants among teenagers rises 83 per cent in nine years

The rate at which antidepressant medication is given to teenagers has nearly doubled in less than a decade.

A study by the New Zealand Medical Association published in the New Zealand Medical Journal on Friday analysed the number of antidepressants dispensed to those aged 24 and under between 2007 and 2016.

It showed the rate had increased by 83 per cent, from 1361 lots of antidepressants being dispensed to those aged between 13 and 17 for every 100,000 New Zealanders in that age group to 2494 per 100,000 young people.

In total, those aged 24 and under were dispensed antidepressants approximately 1.35 million times during the nine-year period.

Rates were highest among women aged 18 to 24 but had also increased for children aged 12 and under by 15 per cent.

verall, the proportion of antidepressants being dispensed to those aged 24 and under increased by 44 per cent, when figures were adjusted for population growth.

The study said access to specialist mental health services had improved between 2007 and 2015, so the increase in antidepressant dispensing could suggest young people were getting better mental healthcare.

However, that link could not be confirmed because the authors were unable to access information about what conditions the antidepressants were being prescribed for.

They also noted a huge disparity between rangatahi (young people) of different ethnic groups.

Young Pākehā were being given antidepressants at nearly twice the rate of Māori and four times the rate of Pasifika and Asians.

That was despite Māori and Pasifika people having higher rates of mental health problems than Pākehā.

​The study said several factors, including the cost of medication, medical practitioners lacking cultural awareness and different cultural beliefs about treatment, could be contributing to the difference in rates between ethnic groups.

University of Auckland associate professor of psychological medicine Sarah Hetrick said the findings were encouraging as they were in line with guidelines and indicated people were getting help.

However, more research was needed into culturally responsive services to ensure all Kiwis could access quality care.

"We need to continue working on it. We do need greater access to talk therapy," she said.

Youth mental health advocate Ezekiel Raui said the study showed the level of need for services.

"It's a signal to all of us who work in mental health and to our government that we need to continue resourcing and continue focussing on mental health and make that a priority for our country."

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