PhotoAccording to the latest research, young people are being prescribed antipsychotic medications more and more in the early stages of their lives. A combination of ADHD and depression are the usual reasons given for the prescriptions, but researchers are finding that much of the time these patients are not showing the proper symptoms to warrant it.

The study, which was conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), found that about 1.5% of boys between the ages of 10 and 18 received a prescription for an antipsychotic drug in 2010. After age 19, that number was cut in half- but many men still received prescriptions. The most common reason for giving the prescriptions was ADHD in males aged 10-18 and depression in those aged 19-24.

All of these prescriptions come with a high risk, though. “Antipsychotics should be prescribed with care. They can adversely affect both physical and neurological function and some of their adverse effects can persist even after the medication is stopped,” said Michael Schoenbaum, who works with NIMH and is a co-author of the study.

Off-label prescriptions

But as long as the prescriptions are helping with real problems, it shouldn’t be a bad thing, right? Well, it seems that this was also not the case with many people who received prescriptions. Researchers found that many children who are given antipsychotic medication may be not even be showing symptoms that correlate with its use. In other words, the medications are being given to treat problems that they are not meant to treat.

For example, the FDA does not approve the use of antipsychotics to treat ADHD, but many doctors prescribe it anyway. This off-label use can be very harmful for patients that need other medications to control or treat their symptoms. The study found that giving antipsychotics to teen boys was used to help with impulsivity and aggression, not to treat any actual psychotic problems.

Researchers also studied prescription data that was provided by the IMS LifeLink LRx database. After examining data from 2006-2010, they found that antipsychotic use increased with age in both boys and girls until they reached age 19, after which the numbers began dropping.

Fewer than half of the patients that were examined had any kind of mental disorder diagnosis. Whether or not this stems from primary care providers not wanting to diagnosis patients with these disorders (due to health costs they would need to pay), or because there were not many mental health disorders is uncertain.

One positive takeaway from the study is that around 75% of these young patients have at least some contact with a psychiatrist. It is a bright spot in an otherwise dismally telling study. The full report was published in JAMA Psychiatry on July 1.  

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