There has been a substantial increase over the last 20 years in antipsychotic prescribing among children and adolescents in England — especially among those with autism, an analysis of primary care records from 7.2 million children and adolescents aged 3-18 years shows.
“This study demonstrates a concerning trend in antipsychotic prescribing in children and adolescents,” study investigator Matthias Pierce, PhD, senior research fellow at the University of Manchester Center for Women’s Mental Health, who jointly led the study, said in a news release.
“We do not think the changes in prescribing necessarily relate to changes in clinical need; rather, it may be more likely to reflect changes in prescribing practice by clinicians,” Pierce said.
Increase in Long-term Use
Between 2000 and 2019, prescriptions for antipsychotics nearly doubled from 0.06% to 0.11%.
The investigators note that the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has approved the use of some antipsychotics in patients younger than age 18 with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severely aggressive behavior attributable to conduct disorder.
However, these data suggest antipsychotics are being prescribed for an increasingly broad range of conditions, mostly common autism, but also for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), tic disorders like Tourrette syndrome, and learning difficulties.
“Broadening use of antipsychotics in developing young people begs questions about their safety over time and demands more research on this topic,” senior author Kathryn Abel, MBBS, PhD, from The University of Manchester, said in the news release.
During the study period, antipsychotic prescribing in primary care increased by an average of 3.3% per year and the rate of first prescriptions increased by 2.2% per year.
The data also suggest that more children and adolescents are taking these powerful drugs for longer periods of time. The proportion receiving antipsychotics for at least 6 months after an initial prescription rose from 41.9% in 2000 to 62.8% in 2018.
From 2009 onwards, more than 90% of prescriptions were for atypical antipsychotics.
Boys and older children aged 15-18 years were most likely to receive an antipsychotic. However, the increasing trends were evident in all groups.
The data also point to inequities in prescribing as a result of deprivation levels, with typical antipsychotics prescribed more frequently in more deprived areas over time.
Pierce said he hopes this study will “help clinicians to evaluate the prescribing of antipsychotics to children more fully and will encourage them to consider better access to alternatives.”
Abel noted that antipsychotic medications “continue to have a valuable role in the treatment of serious mental illness. These findings represent a descriptive account of antipsychotic prescribing to children and adolescents in the UK today and provide a window onto current practice.”
Findings Are No Surprise
Emily Simonoff, MD, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, offered perspective on the study in a statement from the UK nonprofit Science Media Centre.
“To clinicians, it will not be surprising that the authors demonstrate an increase in rates of prescriptions over that time period, as there has been a steadily emerging evidence base for the benefits of this group of medication for a range of different indications, which has been further supported by new licensing indications and recommendations from NICE,” Simonoff said.
For example, “there is good evidence for their benefits for other conditions such as irritability in autism spectrum disorder.