Revealed: Thousands of under-14s prescribed antidepressants in 2018

Newshub can reveal 3353 children aged under 14 were prescribed antidepressants through community-based providers (pharmacies) in 2018.

  • 1573 were female.
  • 1780 were male.

Out of the 20 district health boards (DHBs) in New Zealand, 13 have more than 100 young patients who were prescribed the medication. The figure comes from the number of patients dispensed one or more prescription of antidepressants through pharmacies.

Waitemata had 395 under-14 patients in 2018, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, West Coast had just 22.

antidepressant use in under-14s
Photo credit: Newshub.

In 2017 there were 3163 under-14 patients overall.

Ministry of Health deputy director of mental health Ian Soosay told Newshub the numbers are concerning, but the prescriptions aren't the only tool used to help under-14s.

"Antidepressants will be part of a package which is around some psychological work, some practical work like what might help children in school and some work around the whanau."

Dr Soosay says no child should be prescribed medicine without a thorough discussion with their parents.

"It's too simplistic to think about medicines as a last resort.  When I have someone in front of me with depression and with mental health problems, they severely impact people," he said.

"What I try and do is work with them to find a solution that works. There can be a role for antidepressants as part of that wider package - it does make a difference for people."

Soosay wants a spectrum of services to be available for people, and is hopeful the Government will deliver in the Budget.

The Government has delayed its response to the mental health inquiry for the second time, so it will sit in line with the release of the Budget on May 30.

The findings were released in December last year. The inquiry found the annual cost of serious mental illness, including addiction, was an estimated $12 billion, and it recommended urgently implementing a national suicide prevention strategy.

Health Minister David Clark declined an interview with Newshub on the new antidepressants figures.

Green Party mental health spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick says the issue of under-14s being prescribed antidepressants could be much worse than first thought.

"It probably speaks to that being the tip of the iceberg of kids who are experiencing mental distress. It also demonstrates with life being more stressful for all people in 2019 whether it's the pressure of housing, finding a job or fulfilling an education," she said.

"Those kinds of pressures are filtering through families and into the lives of our kids."

Swarbrick says there needs to be a range of options available, particularly for young people.

"A lot of them aren't taken seriously when it comes to speaking about their distress or about the issues they are facing. All they want is for them not be patronised and for them to have an opportunity to have their say in how their lives operate."

Chloe Swarbrick.
Chloe Swarbrick. Photo credit: Getty

National's mental health spokesperson Matt Doocey believes it's unacceptable to see an increase in young people using the medication and says the Government needs to respond.

"There needs to be a real choice for parents. Prescribing of antidepressants should be one option but also there should be a range of talk therapies provided and even e-therapy," he said.  

"We're seeing a range of ethicacy and beneficial outcomes from the use of e-therapy. That should be fully funded to allow that choice for parents to support their young people."

The Government announced earlier this month that all year 1 to 8 children in Canterbury and Kaikōura would receive mental health support from the Mana Ake programme.

But Doocey says the Government's done very little in the mental health space in its first 18 months, and that it's time those in power walk the talk.

Newshub previously revealed counselling use by students at New Zealand's universities has grown 25 percent since 2015. In 2017, 13,137 individual students used counselling services. In 2015, 10,538 students used them.

New Zealand Medical Association chair Kate Baddock said in November the state of mental health in New Zealand is shocking.

"It's disastrous. Increasing levels of mental distress, mental illness and limited means for managing and addressing it.

Where to find help and support:

  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)