Pre-schoolers on antidepressants amid suicide fears
Special investigation: One in every 33 children, including pre-schoolers, is taking antidepressant medication, as concerns mount the drugs could be driving up youth suicide rates.
The medical regulator has called on doctors to review their prescribing of the controversial drugs after it found use of the medications had soared by 36 per cent in the last five years.
Alarmingly it found suicide rates had also increased across all age groups, especially among 0-14 year olds but it said there was not enough evidence to say the drugs were the cause.
Medical professionals and parents are calling for warning labels to be placed on the outside of antidepressant packets.
And, while a direct connection between antidepressant and suicide is still being investigated, specialist doctors colleges report there can be severe and long lasting withdrawal symptoms when people try to get off the drugs.
The head of adolescent psychiatry at the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry (RANZCP) Dr Paul Robertson is concerned antidepressants are being prescribed "too often" and said Australia's increasing use "is not clearly aligned with the various guidelines around the world".
He said he had seen instances of the medications being prescribed to four year olds.
"I think it's probably mostly not appropriate and a different sort of intervention is required," he said.
Antidepressants are not registered for the treatment of depression in anyone under the age of 18 in Australia, yet more than 175,000 people in this age group were using them in 2019.
A study by the nation's medical regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) found almost 40,000 children, aged 5 to 11 years, were prescribed antidepressants between 2015 and 2019.
Australia is now the third highest user of the medicines in the world.
Doctors admit they are issuing the drugs out of desperation - and outside medical guidelines - because child psychiatrists are too expensive and waiting times can be up to 12 months or longer.
"It's a very difficult thing when you're at the frontline, the other day there was somebody under ten who's facing six to 12 months to try and get into somebody," Australian Medical Association (AMA) vice president and GP Dr Chris Moy said.
The RANZCP conceded numbers of child psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health workers needed to double to meet demand.
Sydney psychologist Kimberley O'Brien said it was better to assess children when they were not on medication.
But of the 2000 families her practice sees each year, 10.6 per cent of the children are already taking antidepressants.
"I have actually heard parents say that it's much cheaper to just get the medication rather than to go and have the therapy," she said.
A study by academics Martin Whitely, Melissa Raven and Adelaide child psychiatrist Professor Jon Jureidini last year found a 66 per cent increase in use of the medications in young people in the last decade was associated with a 49 per cent increase in youth suicides.
The authors could not prove antidepressants caused the suicides but noted "there is clear evidence that more young Australians are taking antidepressants, and more young Australians are killing themselves and self-harming, often by intentionally overdosing on the very substances that are supposed to help them".
Recent research by Sydney University's Dr Rose Cairns found the drugs meant to beat depression were actually being used in self harm and suicide attempts.
A Productivity Commission inquiry into mental health last year found there was evidence the medications were being prescribed to people without a mental illness, contrary to people's preference and before alternatives had been tried.
"We have heard distressing evidence about the adverse side effects of some mental health drugs, including dramatic weight gain, disabling lethargy, sexual dysfunction and suicidality," the commission said.
Medical guidelines state psychological therapy should be tried before drugs are prescribed but more than three times as many people use mental health medication as access psychological therapy.
The Productivity Commission called for the GPs who prescribe the drugs to be re-educated.
National youth mental health service Headspace was unable to answer News Corp's questions about its antidepressant prescribing rates.
'HE TOOK HIS MEDICATION AS PRESCRIBED AND HE DIED'
Nineteen-year-old Toran Henry took his own life two weeks after a psychiatrist put him back an antidepressant that had previously caused severe adverse reactions.
When his mother Maria Bradshaw objected, the psychiatrist told her he threatened to notify Child Protective Services she was failing to provide medical care for her child "and so, I felt that I had no choice".
Toran was first prescribed the drug when, as a 16 year old, he was upset because he had broken up with his girlfriend. It made him aggressive, affected his concentration, he suffered sexual dysfunction, bad dreams, suicidal thoughts and then self-harmed.
His relationships with his friends were all but destroyed during that period of time, and he also dropped out of school.
The Mylan report, kept secret from his mother for four years, states the drug was the "probable" cause of his death.
"Completed suicide is a listed event of fluoxetine. Causality has been assessed as probable as it is related to the other events and patient had previously deliberately self harmed prior to fluoxetine therapy being discontinued the previous year," the Mylan report said.
Ms Bradshaw became homeless after selling her property to cover legal fees associated with Toran's inquest which she hoped would lead to new warnings being placed on antidepressant packets in New Zealand.
"The New Zealand government response was that there wasn't room on the packaging to include that warning," she said.
"The coroner's recommendation was that children should take their medication as prescribed. My son did take his medication as prescribed and he died," she said.
"If the government had said we're going to stop prescribing these to children, or we going to put warning labels on, it would have been absolutely worth it but as it is I feel like Toran's suffering and my suffering has counted for absolutely nothing," she said.
If you need help with a mental health issue contact Lifeline 131114 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.
Originally published as Pre-schoolers on antidepressants amid suicide fears