A new study found that drug prescriptions to combat depression...

A new study found that drug prescriptions to combat depression and anxiety among youth spiked by 64% after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Credit: iStock

Drug prescriptions nationwide to combat depression and anxiety among young people have jumped nearly 64% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study — driven by more girls and young women seeking mental health treatment.

On Long Island, the increase is an indicator of the emotional toll on young people since the pandemic hit in March 2020, some experts said, from isolation to cyberbullying to social media they can access 24/7 on their cellphones. Others said it's a hopeful sign that parents and guardians are becoming more open to getting the mental health treatment their children need.

“I think it’s promising that this increase in prescriptions may reflect a willingness on the part of families to seek care for their youth when they are anxious or depressed,” said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry for Northwell Health.

A growing openness about discussing mental health — and getting proper treatment including prescription medications — is a direct result of the pandemic, Fornari said. 

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, found that the rate of dispensing prescription drugs rose significantly among girls and young women from March 2020 onward. In female adolescents ages 12 to 17, the rate increased 130%. For female young adults ages 18 to 25, the rate went up by 57%.

The rates either stayed the same or dropped somewhat among male adolescents and young men, according to the study, whose lead author, Dr. Kao-Ping Chua, is a primary care pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

"Antidepressant dispensing to adolescents and young adults was rising before the COVID-19 outbreak and rose 63.5% faster afterward," the study said.

Fornari noted that depression is more common in adolescent girls than boys.

Shari Lurie, senior director of mental health services at two nonprofit health clinics in Nassau County, said her agencies are issuing an increasing number of prescriptions for drugs to combat depression and anxiety among the young.

“We are definitely seeing a jump in medication requests, both by the schools and the parents,” said Lurie, who works at EPIC Long Island in East Meadow and the South Shore Child Guidance Center in Freeport.

“Definitely the need is there because the kids are really suffering from depression and anxiety since COVID,” she said.

A major cause, Lurie added, is the social disruption and isolation spurred by the pandemic when schools, sports, clubs and other activities shut down.

“Depression and anxiety definitely escalated,” she said.

Fornari noted that the mental health crisis among young people predated the pandemic and actually started about a decade before with the introduction of smartphones.

The study “was really on point,” said Dr. Saurabh Gupta, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Stony Brook Medicine, adding that he too has seen an increased use of prescription drugs to treat mental health issues among his patients. 

A growing issue, Gupta said, is “school refusal” — children refusing to attend school partly because of their depression and anxiety, he said. While he tries to use non-drug solutions, if they don’t work, “medications are helpful,” he said.

Fornari said there is a lack of child and adolescent psychiatrists on Long Island and nationwide.

“It’s primary care providers who are taking care of the majority of youth with mild to moderate anxiety and depression,” he said.

Lurie’s clinics have both child and adolescent psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners who prescribe the medications. She said some parents are open to their children taking medications, while others are not.

“Culturally you still have some parents who won’t even talk about medication, even though their kids need it,” she said.

Fornari said he does not think the study means the medications are being overprescribed, because the percentage of young people receiving them is far below that of those with psychiatric disorders.

“During the pandemic, the rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders nearly doubled,” he said.

Drug prescriptions nationwide to combat depression and anxiety among young people have jumped nearly 64% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study — driven by more girls and young women seeking mental health treatment.

On Long Island, the increase is an indicator of the emotional toll on young people since the pandemic hit in March 2020, some experts said, from isolation to cyberbullying to social media they can access 24/7 on their cellphones. Others said it's a hopeful sign that parents and guardians are becoming more open to getting the mental health treatment their children need.

“I think it’s promising that this increase in prescriptions may reflect a willingness on the part of families to seek care for their youth when they are anxious or depressed,” said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry for Northwell Health.

A growing openness about discussing mental health — and getting proper treatment including prescription medications — is a direct result of the pandemic, Fornari said. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Drug prescriptions nationwide to combat depression and anxiety among young people jumped nearly 64% during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.
  • The spike is an indicator of the emotional toll on young people since the pandemic hit Long Island in March 2020, some experts said.
  • Other experts said it's a hopeful sign that parents and guardians are becoming more open to getting the mental health treatment their children need.

The study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, found that the rate of dispensing prescription drugs rose significantly among girls and young women from March 2020 onward. In female adolescents ages 12 to 17, the rate increased 130%. For female young adults ages 18 to 25, the rate went up by 57%.

The rates either stayed the same or dropped somewhat among male adolescents and young men, according to the study, whose lead author, Dr. Kao-Ping Chua, is a primary care pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

"Antidepressant dispensing to adolescents and young adults was rising before the COVID-19 outbreak and rose 63.5% faster afterward," the study said.

Fornari noted that depression is more common in adolescent girls than boys.

Shari Lurie, senior director of mental health services at two nonprofit health clinics in Nassau County, said her agencies are issuing an increasing number of prescriptions for drugs to combat depression and anxiety among the young.

“We are definitely seeing a jump in medication requests, both by the schools and the parents,” said Lurie, who works at EPIC Long Island in East Meadow and the South Shore Child Guidance Center in Freeport.

“Definitely the need is there because the kids are really suffering from depression and anxiety since COVID,” she said.

A major cause, Lurie added, is the social disruption and isolation spurred by the pandemic when schools, sports, clubs and other activities shut down.

“Depression and anxiety definitely escalated,” she said.

Fornari noted that the mental health crisis among young people predated the pandemic and actually started about a decade before with the introduction of smartphones.

The study “was really on point,” said Dr. Saurabh Gupta, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Stony Brook Medicine, adding that he too has seen an increased use of prescription drugs to treat mental health issues among his patients. 

A growing issue, Gupta said, is “school refusal” — children refusing to attend school partly because of their depression and anxiety, he said. While he tries to use non-drug solutions, if they don’t work, “medications are helpful,” he said.

Fornari said there is a lack of child and adolescent psychiatrists on Long Island and nationwide.

“It’s primary care providers who are taking care of the majority of youth with mild to moderate anxiety and depression,” he said.

Lurie’s clinics have both child and adolescent psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners who prescribe the medications. She said some parents are open to their children taking medications, while others are not.

“Culturally you still have some parents who won’t even talk about medication, even though their kids need it,” she said.

Fornari said he does not think the study means the medications are being overprescribed, because the percentage of young people receiving them is far below that of those with psychiatric disorders.

“During the pandemic, the rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders nearly doubled,” he said.

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