Pandemic’s Hidden Crisis: Antidepressant Use Skyrockets Among Young Females

Antidepressants Pills Frown

Following the COVID-19 pandemic’s start, there was a marked increase in antidepressant dispensing among adolescents and young adults, especially females, highlighting an accelerated trend and suggesting a deepened mental health crisis. The study points to the need for further investigation into interventions that can effectively address the mental health challenges faced by young people.

After March 2020, the dispensing of antidepressants to young people increased at a faster pace, particularly among females.

A new study reveals a significant rise in the prescription of antidepressants to adolescents and young adults following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the increase being notably higher among females.

While a growing number of young people ages 12 to 25 were receiving antidepressants before the pandemic, the antidepressant dispensing rate rose nearly 64% faster after March 2020, according to Michigan Medicine-led findings in Pediatrics.

“Antidepressant dispensing to adolescents and young adults was already high and rising before March 2020. Our findings suggest these trends accelerated during the pandemic,” said lead author Kao Ping Chua, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatrician and researcher at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and the Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research Center.

Gender Disparities in Mental Health

Researchers analyzed data from a national database reporting 92% of prescriptions dispensed in U.S. pharmacies. They found that the increase in the antidepressant dispensing rate during the pandemic was driven by females.

After March 2020, this rate increased 130% faster among female adolescents ages 12-17 years and 60% faster among female young adults ages 18-25 years.

“Multiple studies suggest that rates of anxiety and depression among female adolescents increased during the pandemic,” Chua said. “These studies, coupled with our findings, suggest the pandemic exacerbated a pre-existing mental health crisis in this group.”

Differences in Male Mental Health Trends

In contrast to females, the antidepressant dispensing rate changed little among male young adults after March 2020 and declined among male adolescents, which Chua found surprising.

“It’s hard to believe this decline reflects improved mental health,” he said.

He believes a more likely explanation is that male adolescents may have skipped physicals and other healthcare visits during the pandemic, decreasing opportunities to diagnose and treat anxiety and depression.

The transition away from in-person learning, he notes, may have also decreased opportunities for teachers and other school staff to detect mental health problems in male adolescents.

Chua said the overall rise in antidepressant dispensing to adolescents and young adults may not only be related to worsened mental health. Long waitlists for psychotherapy, for example, may have also played a role.

“In my primary care clinic, I often heard from patients and families that they were facing 6-9 month wait lists for therapy during the pandemic. In those situations, it didn’t make sense to withhold antidepressants and recommend a therapy-only approach,” he said.

Further studies, Chua says, should identify which interventions can best promote the mental health of adolescents and young adults.

Reference: “Antidepressant Dispensing to US Adolescents and Young Adults: 2016–2022” by Kao-Ping Chua, Anna Volerman, Jason Zhang, Joanna Hua and Rena M. Conti, 26 February 2024, Pediatrics.
DOI: 10.1542/peds.2023-064245

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