A growing number of Japanese children are being prescribed psychotropic drugs to treat depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) and schizophrenia, according to a study by government-funded medical institutes.
In particular, the number of ADHD drug prescriptions for patients aged between 13 and 18 years old surged 2.49 times between two three-year periods covering 2002-2004 and 2008-2010, despite some of them being unapproved for use among children, the study said.
“Frankly, this is an unfortunate situation for the medical community” because doctors are having to take legal risks to provide some psychotropic drugs to underage patients, said Yasuyuki Okumura, a researcher at the Institute for Health Economics and Policy and co-author of the research paper.
The paper, which examined a total of 233,399 prescriptions issued by hospitals and clinics from 2002 tol 2010, was published in November in the Japanese medical journal Seishin Shinkeigaku Zasshi (Journal for the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology).
Doctors in Japan dealing with children suffering psychiatric problems have long prescribed psychotropic drugs approved only for adults, though doing so involves risks for both patient and doctor.
Because their effectiveness and safety are not officially confirmed by the government, doctors run the risk of being sued if serious adverse effects occur.
Okumura said that in Japan few clinical studies exist on psychotropic drugs for children, unlike in the U.S. and Europe, where clinical trials covering children are legally stipulated.
Okumura and his team also found that the number of ADHD drug prescriptions for 6- to 12-year-old children during the years 2008-2010 increased 84 percent compared to the figure during 2002-2004. Also for the same age group, the number of prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs increased 58 percent.
In addition, the research also found that the number of prescriptions for anti-depression drugs for children between 13 and 18 jumped 31 percent.
Okumura said that the increased use of psychotropic drugs for children can probably be attributed to growth in the number of underage patients seeking treatment for psychiatric problems, an increase in the number of doctors and facilities available to provide medical care for such children, and more drugs being approved by the government for use among children.
Health ministry surveys show that the number of children seeking medical care for mental health issues grew from 95,000 in 2002 to 148,000 in 2008.